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When COVID-19 transformed day-to-day life over two years ago, people across North Carolina were suddenly forced to work and learn remotely to curb the spread of a contagious, deadly virus.
“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,” said Nate Denny, deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity for the N.C. Department of Information Technology.
That access to a consistent, high-speed broadband connection is a service that many in the state, especially in rural areas, don’t have.
According to NCDIT’s broadband availability index, more than 92% of the state’s population has access to download speeds of at least 100 megabytes per second, but that’s concentrated in North Carolina’s major urban centers such as Raleigh and Charlotte.
In the Sandhills’ rural Sampson County, for instance, fewer than 60% of residents have speeds that high.
Among households in Rutherford County in rural Western North Carolina, fewer than a quarter have access to speeds of 100 Mbps or above.
That’s not accounting for upload speeds, which are often much lower than the accompanying download speeds. To get synchronized speeds, the installation of fiber optic cables is often required.
“Fiber projects can hit those speeds,” Denny said. “Not many other technologies can hit those speeds reliably.”
The rural-urban gap for fiber technology is even greater across the state, even in counties just below the most populous.
In Cumberland County, North Carolina’s fifth-most populous county, fewer than 10% of households have access to fiber technology.
Some investment in fiber is taking place within the private sector. Metronet recently launched its fiber service in Fayetteville with expansion planned for rural Cumberland County along with other parts of the state, Carolina Public Press previously reported.
But the state has a long way to go as fewer than 40% of households statewide have access to fiber.
State Rep. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, said bringing fiber access to rural North Carolina is an economic problem.
“There’s a cost involved in running fiber,” he said. “You got to pay for it. So, if you’ve got one house every half-mile as opposed to one house every 200 feet, the economics don’t work.”
For many internet service providers, or ISPs, the cost isn’t worth the return on investment.
That’s where the American Rescue Plan Act comes into play.
To address this gap in high-speed broadband access between rural and urban counties, North Carolina is committing more than $1 billion in federal funds from ARPA.
Per federal guidelines, ARPA dollars used to invest in broadband infrastructure must have download speeds at 100 Mbps and upload speeds of 20 Mbps, scalable to 100 Mbps in the future.
With these federal funds, 98% of households in North Carolina can reach that connection standard, Denny said.
One part of that goal is the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology grant.
The GREAT grant, which started in 2018, is now revamped to include $350 million of the more than $1 billion in broadband ARPA funds.
The grant operates as a public-private partnership in which a county or municipality partners with an ISP to use ARPA dollars to fund the construction of high-speed broadband infrastructure in areas that didn’t have access previously.
One example is the ISP Brightspeed, which is working with Cumberland to bring fiber internet to rural parts of the county.
Electric cooperatives can also take advantage of the GREAT grant. Blue Ridge Energy, which covers parts of Western North Carolina, is working with SkyLine SkyBest to bring fiber to Caldwell County, much of which is along the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Crystal Spencer, director of marketing for Blue Ridge Energy, said the grant allowed the companies to reach areas that are expensive to cover.
“It is very cost intensive to have this infrastructure, particularly in our areas where everything is so mountainous and rocky,” she said.
Another $400 million from the ARPA funding is going to the Completing Access to Broadband, or CAB, program.
CAB allows counties to partner with NCDIT by matching each other’s ARPA dollars to procure an ISP to reach an area that needs broadband service.
“Governments need more flexibility to build those kinds of public-private partnerships, and we think the CAB program in particular is a really good new option for county governments to help more proactively address unserved parts of their community,” Denny said.
In 2019, Szoka helped pass Senate Bill 310, which allows electric cooperatives to lease fiber space on their electric grids to expand broadband access to their members.
Szoka said he saw the legislation as a way for cooperatives to reach rural parts of the state with high-speed internet, as they did nearly 100 years ago with electricity.
He said internet access should be viewed as infrastructure as opposed to merely a service.
“We should look at this more like digital infrastructure,” Szoka said. “We have people that aren’t connected. How can they participate in what’s going on in the world? I’m not talking about Netflix and Hulu and all that kind of stuff. I’m talking about emails. I’m talking about running businesses online. I’m talking about things like that.”
The law from 2019 also allows electric cooperatives to build subsidiaries that service the internet to their members.
One cooperative that has done that is Roanoke Electric Cooperative, which covers Bertie, Gates, Halifax, Person and Northampton counties.
Roanoke’s director of broadband sales and marketing, Angela Washington, said that the co-op created Roanoke Connect as a way to bring internet access to the community as it once did with electricity.
“We saw a need years ago, given the digital divide, especially in rural areas in North Carolina and specifically our rural area, northeastern North Carolina,” she said.
Another similar bill in 2019, House Bill 431, would have allowed municipalities to lease fiber space to private ISPs.
That bill stalled in the General Assembly. Szoka, a co-sponsor, said he would have liked to see it passed to give municipalities more flexibility in reaching their rural residents.
But he said given the political will for broadband access amid the pandemic and the money being invested, he’s confident that many rural areas will start to see more access to high-speed internet.
“Two years from now, who knows, with all the money that’s coming in, I’m very encouraged that we’re going to be looking at a real different community,” Szoka said.