Cumberland hopes to use ARPA funds to help broadband service build infrastructure

Cumberland hopes to use ARPA funds to help broadband service build infrastructure

FAYETTEVILLE — Residents in rural Cumberland County with limited access to high-speed broadband internet may have more options in the coming years due to local and state funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

The county Board of Commissioners approved $1 million in local ARPA funding Monday to partner with Brightspeed, an internet service provider, or ISP, headquartered in Charlotte.

Cumberland County received $65 million from ARPA, federal legislation passed last year to combat the public health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To fund the needed infrastructure, Brightspeed is applying to the N.C. Department of Information Technology’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology grant, or GREAT, which is also funded through ARPA money allocated to the state.

GREAT, which started prior to ARPA in 2018, was redesigned for 2022 to incorporate $350 million from the federal dollars.

ISPs, like Brightspeed, can apply for the GREAT grant. If accepted, ISPs can receive up to $4 million.

The ISP, as dictated from state legislation in 2018 that started GREAT, must match that grant anywhere from 35% to 50%.

However, ISPs can partner with counties, such as Cumberland, to request local ARPA dollars to be used as part of the required matching funds.

“That is a big focus of the way that this particular state legislation is written,” said Angela Bailey, director of the broadband infrastructure office at NCDIT.  

“To encourage partnerships with counties so that we’re leveraging both the state ARPA dollars and the local ARPA dollars.”

At the meeting Monday, County Manager Amy Cannon told commissioners that Brightspeed plans to bring high-speed fiber access to 2,017 residences and businesses.

The company estimates the total cost of the project to be $7.5 million, costing about $3,700 per location.

If accepted into the GREAT grant program, Brightspeed and Cumberland County would invest $2.5 million and $1 million, respectively, as the company has applied for the maximum grant amount of $4 million.

The application period for the $350 million in the grant program began on Jan. 31 and will end on April 4.

NCDIT will begin assessing applications after that date.

Brightspeed is the second company in recent months to announce expansion of their fiber network into Cumberland County.

Metronet, a fiber internet company based in Indiana, launched their fiber network in the county earlier this month, Carolina Public Press reported.

The company is investing $70 million of its own money into the new infrastructure. According to the county and the city of Fayetteville, neither are spending any money on the project.

The city’s Public Works Commission, however, is investing $1.7 million on the construction.

Metronet has announced plans to expand to parts of rural Cumberland, including the small towns of Falcon, Godwin, Linden and Stedman.

Brightspeed has not been in contact with PWC, a spokesperson with PWC said.

Requirements of the GREAT program

To be eligible for the GREAT grant that Brightspeed is pursuing, the funds must be used to build eligible infrastructure in economically-distressed counties or rural census tracts with limited broadband access in other counties.

The state defines eligible counties as the first and second of the N.C. Department of Commerce’s three-tiered county system, with tier one being defined as the most economically-disadvantaged. Cumberland is among the tier one counties.

Brightspeed’s construction plan for its fiber network includes many rural parts of Cumberland, stretching from Gray’s Creek through the Rockfish Road area in Hope Mills to the Hoke County line, Cannon said. The coverage area will also go from Wade to the Harnett County line, she said.

The purpose of the GREAT grant program is to serve rural communities like these as it often isn’t profitable for ISPs to build infrastructure in remote areas, Bailey said.

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