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All members of the N.C. House of Representatives voted to pass a $750 million broadband expansion measure Wednesday afternoon.
The legislation aims to close “broadband gaps” in less developed, rural areas of the state using federal pandemic relief funds.
The 109-0 vote on House Bill 947 marked a significant milestone in an ambitious proposal by four Republicans to increase the state’s commitment to broadband infrastructure by five times the current $150 million commitment.
Rep. Jake Johnson, R-Henderson, Polk and Transylvania, called it the “most historic investment in broadband” ever seen in North Carolina. Asked if a completely unified House vote signals strong chances for the bill’s success, Johnson said it is safe to say it “inspires confidence that it will be implemented” at some point.
The GREAT Broadband Expansion Act would add $340 million to the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology program. GREAT was established in 2018 to allocate $150 million over 10 years for the construction of high-speed internet networks using fiber-optic lines, existing copper telephone lines and power cables, and wireless radio and satellite transmission.
The legislation would also establish the Completing Access to Broadband program, allocating an additional $400 million in grants available to every county in the state.
Through cost-sharing among local governments, the state and private providers, Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, estimates the total investment could be nearly $1.4 billion. Arp spearheaded the legislation alongside co-sponsors Johnson, Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, and Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth.
The unanimous vote comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which provides nearly $7.2 billion to states and local governments to reimburse libraries and schools providing free broadband access to students’ homes.
Additionally, Biden has proposed a $2.6 trillion plan to rebuild the nation’s “crumbling infrastructure.” The American Jobs Plan is aimed at reaching 100% broadband coverage in the U.S. over eight years, prioritizing the construction of broadband networks by private carriers and cooperatives partnered with local governments.
“Nationally, every state’s going to be trying to do something like this,” Arp said Tuesday evening. “We want to be the first out of the gate, so that we can get that partnership capital coming into North Carolina and get ready for this.”
A key section recently added to the bill opens funding for all 100 counties, including rural counties recently upgraded to the third tier of economic well-being by the Department of Commerce.
The three-tier system dictates how millions of economic relief dollars are allocated to less prosperous areas of the state — what Pender County Commissioner Jackie Newton has referred to as the “rural hinterlands.”
The COVID pandemic caused an unnatural shift in the tier system. Wealthier counties like Buncombe were downgraded to the second tier because of a massive unemployment spike in the hospitality industry, which bolsters Asheville’s economy. Meanwhile, lower-income rural counties like Polk and Transylvania in the west and Pender in the east were upgraded to the third tier.
“There may be some areas who are ‘developed and less distressed,'” Johnson said Wednesday. “But for the most part, we’ve got some rural census tracts in my district that really need access to this money because they have very little to no internet access at all.
“Here’s been my message to providers: I don’t care who does it, or how they do it. I just need internet for the people who need it most.”
A host of for-profit and nonprofit carriers will vie for broadband projects funded by the legislation if it passes, according to Johnson.
‘A bold move’
House Republicans heralded the GREAT program as a national model for expanding broadband to underserved areas. The federal government’s deregulation of the telecommunications industry in 1996 led to great advances in wireless and smartphone technology.
“But because it is market based, when you have less density of people, it makes it more challenging to deploy infrastructure,” Arp said of the challenges rural America faces in connecting sparse populations.
He said the GREAT program has been adapted by other states because it helps normalize the cost of the infrastructure “so that it deploys and extends broadband using market-based solutions.”
The legislation was designed to modify the existing GREAT program to comply with federal requirements, necessary for access to the newly available pandemic relief funds. The new program, on the other hand, “fills in the doughnut holes” between GREAT-funded areas and other areas covered by the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, Arp said.
Additionally, the legislation incentivizes municipalities and counties to partner with the state to use their share of federal American Rescue Plan dollars to expand broadband infrastructure.
Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, who co-sponsored the bill, said the state has progressed in its efforts to expand broadband to rural regions but said “more needs to be done,” especially in improving rural access to education and health care opportunities.
“This is a bold move, but worth the investment,” Lambeth said.