Brittney Burns – Staff Writer
North Carolina’s BRIGHT Futures Act, also known as House Bill 68, is intended to clarify rules governing the ability of municipalities and counties to enlist into public/private partnerships for communications services such as broadband and wireless internet.
Improving connectivity options in Macon County has been a priority of the Macon County Board of Commissioners and when House Representative Kevin Corbin was running for office, he assured voters in House District 120 that addressing the lack of connectivity in WNC was one of the first things he would address and the BRIGHT Futures Act does just that.
BRIGHT stands for Broadband enabled services; Retail online services; Internet of things; GridPower; Health care, and; Training and education. The acronym, BRIGHT, is intended to represent the fast growing markets lawmakers say the act will stimulate especially in rural areas.
“There are monies in North Carolina in places such as rural infrastructure committee that can be used for infrastructure, which has been defined as buildings and roads in the past,” said Corbin. “This bill would help define broadband and connectivity as infrastructure so counties and towns can apply for these funds to improve their broadband infrastructure. While we absolutely need money for roads and to rebuild buildings for new industry to flourish, we need to start treating internet like we used to define highways in the 1960s. People travel for their job through using the internet. The majority of my district is without access to high speed internet and it is something we desperately need in our state.”
North Carolina’s population of residents living in rural areas is the second largest of any state in the country, with more than 3.3 million people living in the 85 counties considered to be rural. Corbin serves as a co-sponsor on the bi-partisan bill, which was introduced in the Senate as Senate Bill 65. Senator Jim Davis was also a co-sponsor on the bill in the Senate.
“Especially for the rural part of the state, connectivity and internet access is basically nonexistent,” said Sen. Davis. “This bill is another way to look at a way to fix that and to get that last mile of connectivity to our residents. We don’t have enough money to make that last mile, but this is just another way at looking at every possibility we have to get fast internet to residents in North Carolina.”
The bill includes plans to create a new grant program at the Department of Commerce to assist the growth of businesses in the BRIGHT market segment. While the bill does direct the N.C. Department of Commerce to explore relevant grant programs that could aid municipalities in establishing such partnerships, there is no appropriation of funds attached to the legislation.
The legislation has also been endorsed by North Carolina Lt. Governor Dan Forest, who said that last mile connectivity has now become just as important to residential homes as it has been for classrooms across the state.
If signed into law, the BRIGHT Futures Act would allow cities that offer broadband to extend fiber networks beyond their service boundaries without running afoul of a 2011 law meant to limit competition between government and private providers.
The Town of Highlands currently provides Broadband within the city limits, and the new legislation would help expand that program to reach more customers who may have access to the service, but fall outside the city limits.
Highlands offers both Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) and fixed wireless service to residents and businesses in the downtown area. Prices vary based on the location requesting the services, but the lowest cost package begins at $34.99 for a basic, four megabit download speed to an extreme package that connects an entire home and comes with a free Roku and 50 MBPS (megabits per second) download speeds for $119.98 a month.
Highlands was only recently allowed to provide internet after the FCC overturned the 2011 broadband ruling that prohibited municipalities from offering the service. While municipalities are allowed to provide broadband, counties are not, which is something Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor said he would like to see change for rural areas. Macon County Economic Development Director Tommy Jenkins agreed that connectivity is one of the most important visions county leaders should be focusing on.
“The most important infrastructure planning for this board is working with middle mile providers to provide last mile connectivity in Macon County,” said Jenkins. “This is as important to today’s generation as electricity was when electricity was first brought to Macon County.”
The North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM), which lobbies the legislature on behalf of city and town governments, has endorsed the public-private concept.
“For North Carolina cities and towns, this issue was never about who owned what,” NCLM Executive Director Paul Meyer said in a statement. “It was about providing critical 21st-century infrastructure to grow local economies, help businesses expand and bring jobs to their residents. NCLM looks forward to working with the bill sponsors in the coming weeks to bring about solutions that will help cities and towns of all sizes and all circumstances.”