Morris to receives grant to expand broadband


Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer

Counties across North Carolina will soon receive nearly $10 million in grant funding to boost rural broadband connectivity. The grants are to assist 14 companies, including Morris Broadband which serves Macon County, improve broadband for some 10,000 households plus almost 600 businesses and community institutions. The grants are part of the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT). The matching grants went to “Internet service providers and electric membership cooperatives that compete for funding to lower financial barriers that prevent high speed internet service expansion in Tier 1 [identified as economically distressed] counties,” according to North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and the NC Department of Information Technology. Launched by the N.C. General Assembly in 2018, the program subsidizes Internet providers and electric cooperatives who are working with unserved and underserved rural communities across the state. “Access to reliable, high-speed internet service is critical for businesses to grow, students to learn, and communities to thrive,” Cooper said in announcing the funding. “These grants will help connect thousands of homes and businesses with opportunities across the state and around the world.” To be eligible for the grant funds, the businesses awarded the grants had to be located in census blocks or portions of census blocks in Tier One counties that lack access to a service providing a minimum of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Megabit per second upload speeds. The state classifies the 40 most economically distressed counties in the state as Tier One counties. Macon County was designated a Tier Two county in November 2018. To increase internet access across North Carolina, Governor Cooper recently launched a new Governor’s Task Force on Connecting North Carolina. Governor Cooper’s latest budget invests $35 million for efforts to expand access to broadband internet service, including an additional $30 million for more GREAT grants plus $5 million to close the homework gap for students across the state without home internet access. In Macon County, Morris Broadband/Shivers Communications was awarded the grant. Both Jackson County and Swain County also received a portion of the grant funding for the businesses Sky-Fi Inc. and Sky Wave, Inc, which serve those counties.  Rep. Kevin Corbin has been instrumental in pushing for broadband access in rural areas of the state and in addition to the GREAT grant, continues to introduce new legislation to move the process along.  House Bill 431, the FIBER NC Act, which would set up rules for public-private partnerships and allow cities and counties to get directly involved in broadband investments for the first time since 2011, was introduced by Rep. Corbin and a few other legislators from the state. The bill adds specific language to local government laws to permit the use of tax revenues, grants and other funds to construct and lease broadband facilities and equipment. The local government would then lease those facilities and equipment to a provider. “Of the 19 counties that will benefit from this, two of the counties are in my district so obviously I’m very pleased that we got this,” said Corbin. “This is definitely a win for Western North Carolina moving forward. This is not enough money for a complete fix but every little bit helps. I continue to push hard for expanding access to broadband for the citizens of far Western North Carolina. It is a heavy lift but we’re tackling the problem a little bit at a time.”

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