Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
Over the weekend, North Carolina State Senator Kevin Corbin (R-Macon) announced millions of dollars had been approved for broadband for Macon County and surrounding Western North Carolina (WNC) counties. Sen. Corbin began working on getting internet grant money to WNC as soon as he was elected to the state legislature.
“One of the very first things I campaigned on was getting internet to the folks of WNC and I am so proud to be delivering on that promise,” said Senator Corbin.
Four years ago, as a member of the NC House, Corbin and fellow House member Josh Dobson wrote the HB431, also known as The FIBER Act. The FIBER Act would have allowed cities and counties to invest in the internet infrastructure and then lease to providers. Large internet providers fought the bill but out of those discussions, NC’s GREAT Grant program was formed. Those GREAT grants have amounted to a total of $99 million over the past four years with a significant portion of that money coming to WNC.
Corbin, along with many other members of the legislature then began to lobby the federal government to get involved and fund rural grants. Corbin worked closely with then Congressman Mark Meadows – who went on to become Chief of Staff for President Donald Trump – and then with other legislators to get money in the budget for rural internet across the United States.
The grants were finally announced this week and are called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is the Commission’s next step in bridging the digital divide. On Aug. 1, 2019, the Commission adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposing to establish the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to bring high speed fixed broadband service to rural homes and small businesses that lack it.
The grants have now been allocated and the “auction results” have just been released and it’s good news for WNC.
“The federal grants coming to N.C. amount to a total of $166 million; $45 million is going to Haywood and west,” Corbin said. “A total of 155,000 customers will be hooked up to high speed internet in N.C. and we are getting 35,000 hookups in the seven western counties.”
The bid process is referred to as a “reverse bid.” A dollar figure is given to the bidders and they bid by saying how many customers they can hook up for the money. In addition, the providers have to deliver some matching funds for infrastructure which makes the fund go even further.
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will ensure that networks stand the test of time by prioritizing higher network speeds and lower latency, so that those benefitting from these networks will be able to use tomorrow’s Internet applications as well as today’s.
The funds were allocated through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) who conducted the bid process. By the way the grants are written, this first phase has to go to Census Clusters, or a densely settled area, that is unserved by high speed internet. Phase II will be bid later this year and goes to the next group that has some, but very limited, internet connectivity.
Corbin said he and other WNC legislators will be working closely with the State IT Department and the providers to make sure the work gets done in a timely manner.
“The grants allow up to six years for the customers to be hooked up,” Corbin said, “but that is too long.” Work should begin within a few weeks and customers will begin receiving their service shortly.”
WNC Counties benefiting from the federal funding are:
– Macon County – Charter Communications – 8,191 customers served – $9,009,136
– Cherokee County – Space Exploration Technologies – 3,229 customers served – $2,864,363
– Clay County – Space Exploration Technologies – 1,587 customers served – $1,459,610
– Graham County – Charter Communications – 2,333 customers served – $3,380,292
– Haywood County – Charter Communications – 5,479 customers served – $7,121,025
– Space Exploration Technologies – 224 customers served – $517,287
– Jackson County – Charter Communications – 11,128 customers served – $16,994,261
– Swain County – Charter Communications – 3,400 customers served – $5,297,362
In addition to the federal grants, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper Signed Senate Bill 36 into law last week, which approved another $30 million for the state’s GREAT Grant program which provides funding grants for rural broadband expansion across the state.
Macon County Economic Development Director Tommy Jenkins updated county leaders earlier this month about a $500,000 grant program with BalsamWest to install fiber lines beginning at Addington Bridge Road and running 22 miles through Scaly Mountain and into Highlands.
“Basically, this will build a fiber backbone from Addington Bridge all the way to the Highlands area,” said Jenkins. The grant funds will be used mostly for the 441 project which is approximately six miles.”
The project is expected to connect 2,600 users and 80 businesses along the 441 in the South Macon area of the county.
Other significant projects underway in Macon County include BalsamWest working with Liberty Wood Products to run fiber throughout the community to achieve wireless deployment from a soon-to-be-built tower near Liberty Wood Products to Burningtown.
Jenkins said that BalsamWest is also in the middle of a project working with West Macon Fire Department to implement a new technology that will expand internet to Flowers Gap to serve upwards of 300 new customers.
Folks in Nantahala can also expect to see improvements in the near future as Jenkins said he is working with leaders within the Southwestern Commission Region A Partnership to secure grant funds to build infrastructure near the fire department and new community center to improve broadband access in the area.