High-speed broadband internet service is not available in most of Cumberland County right now. Photo courtesy of Glenn Carstens-Peters via Unsplash

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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.

The county Board of Commissioners approved $1 million in local ARPA funding Monday to partner with Brightspeed, an internet service provider 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 for a Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT, grant, which is also funded through ARPA money allocated to the state.

GREAT, which started in 2018 before the pandemic, 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%-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 Jan. 31 and will end April 4.

NCDIT will begin assessing applications after that date.

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

Metronet, a fiber internet company based in Indiana, launched its 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 is spending any money on the project.

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

“(The program) essentially incentivizes private-sector providers, broadband providers, to build into areas of the state that are unserved with broadband service,” she said.

NCDIT defines unserved as locations with no access to internet service with speeds of at least 25 megabytes per second download and 3 megabytes per second upload.

While more than 99% of Cumberland County has access to that level of service, according to data from NCDIT, most of that is centered in Fayetteville.

Less than 10% of the entire county has access to fiber internet service, which typically offers speeds well above the state’s minimum threshold.

A Brightspeed spokesperson said in an email to Carolina Public Press that the company offers speeds up to 1 gigabyte per second upload and download, which is about 1,000 megabytes.

During the GREAT grant program’s vetting process, NCDIT will administer scores to applicants that account for how fast the service is, how many unserved locations there are in the project and the cost of construction, among other things.

Applicants with the highest scores, based on available funding, will be accepted into the program.

After the application phase, accepted ISPs will have a two-year window to complete construction, though a Brightspeed spokesperson said the company would anticipate the project in Cumberland to be finished before that window lapses.

After construction, NCDIT will continue to monitor the ISP’s service to ensure deployed speeds are maintained as part of the grant requirements, Bailey said.

As a federal requirement of ARPA, ISPs must also participate in the affordable connectivity program, which requires that households at 200% or below the federal poverty level receive certain discounts on internet service.

GREAT prior to ARPA

Prior to ARPA, the GREAT grant program operated initially with $10 million from the state. In the years after, it received $15 million annually.

The first ISPs accepted into the program completed construction last summer.

According to NCDIT, the program throughout its history has awarded over $55 million to ISPs to expand broadband service to over 40,000 residences and businesses in North Carolina.

Ben Sessoms

Ben Sessoms is a Carolina Public Press staff writer based in Fayetteville. Send an email to bsessoms@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.