Internet access is officially on its way to nearly 2,000 homes in Western North Carolina that currently lack a stable connection.
Two months after pledging American Rescue Plan Act funds to finance broadband expansion, Clay and Avery counties were officially awarded funding through North Carolina’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT, grant.
A total of more than $23.4 million in state grants will go to 12 North Carolina counties this round. Clay and Avery are the only Western North Carolina counties in the first group. The others in the group are Alexander, Bertie, Chowan, Cleveland, Davidson, Gaston, Hyde, Lincoln, New Hanover and Stanly counties.
Internet providers throughout the state can receive GREAT grant funding by submitting an application that maps out the broadband expansion project and the amount of money the provider is able to contribute to the project. Often, providers receive money from the counties in which they plan to expand services.
This was the case in Clay and Avery counties, where officials pledged ARPA funds — federal COVID-19 recovery money — to providers applying for GREAT grants. In Clay County, the provider will be Blue Ridge Mountain EMC. In Avery County, it is Spectrum Southeast, LLC, according to a state release.
“Our board (of commissioners) sees this as the opportunity to get affordable and reliable internet to our schoolchildren in our community,” Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier said about the county’s decision to use ARPA money toward GREAT grant funding.
U.S. Census Bureau data shows that an average of only 56% of households in the 18 westernmost counties have access to the internet through cable, DSL or fiber — considered the most reliable connection that provides enough coverage to use the internet on multiple devices. That’s well below the state average of 68%.
Federal dollars to address needs
Internet providers and third-party funders, such as the county governments, in Clay and Avery counties pooled more than $2 million for broadband expansion through the GREAT grant. Altogether, Clay and Avery will receive more than $6 million from the state to fund the initiative, N.C. Department of Information Technology spokesperson Cristalle Dickerson said.
Using ARPA money to expand internet access is one of the core acceptable uses of the dollars, according to U.S. Department of the Treasury guidelines. This is likely because the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of solid internet access, said Nate Denny, NCDIT secretary for broadband and digital equity.
“The pandemic drove home how urgent access to a high-speed internet connection is to every part of modern life — the ability to work from home, learn from home, complete homework, access telemedicine services, apply for jobs or access government services,” Denny said.
The crucial need for stable internet access also prompted Carolina Public Press to begin NC Connection: Closing the News Gap, a research project looking into the relationship between internet connectivity and consumption of local and national news.
The project pays special attention to North Carolinians who live in rural areas and who can’t afford or don’t have access to the internet. Read more about the project, including information about how to participate and some preliminary results, here.
It’s clear that mountain communities have been left behind in the emerging internet-forward world.
“When you live in areas that are served (by internet providers), you have no idea what the other areas are going through,” Barrier said.
But the GREAT grant and subsequent internet access expansion may put a dent in this.
Dickerson said 1,995 households in Avery and Clay counties will have access to fiber internet through funds provided by the GREAT grant.
“Most of these projects are two-year projects,” Denny said.
“GREAT grant guidelines say that you’ve got two years from the execution of the grant agreement to someone being able to turn on their router and have high-speed internet access.”
This is extremely important news to many rural Western North Carolinians, some of whom, Barrier said, would call him in tears when hearing stable internet access was likely on its way to the area.
“You know, they’ve got four kids in the school system, and they bought the house not knowing how spotty the internet was going to be,” he said.
‘Huge number of protests from providers’
Clay and Avery counties are not the only communities that looked to the GREAT grant for broadband expansion. The majority of WNC counties — Buncombe, Graham, Haywood, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Polk, Rutherford and Transylvania — have given ARPA funds to internet providers applying for the grant. But state and federal regulations have put a hold on when NCDIT can officially dole out the awards.
“There’s a statutory 20-day public review and protest period for each application,” Denny explained.
“That resulted in a huge number of protests from providers saying, ‘Don’t put public money into these areas. We already serve them.’
“If there’s a protest, we have to wait 15 days to issue an award, after we’ve notified the protester. The result of that is that we’ve got projects that we can score, but we can’t award them just yet.”
Because of this, Denny said, though most counties were not included in the first round of awards, they’re likely to receive some of the state’s $350 million set aside for GREAT grants in the coming weeks.
“We have applications in 93 counties, and each of those counties will definitely get an award,” he said.