Davin Eldridge – Staff Writer
With the help of a new bill, Western North Carolina might be one step closer to increasing its access to broadband internet.
Current efforts have come a long way, just to get where they are. According to Representative Kevin Corbin, who has spent the last year trying to connect the mountains to the internet, those efforts still might have a long way to go.
Although HB 1086 was first introduced at the start of the short session, its roots in the capital reach as far back as the beginning of last year. Back then, the freshman Republican from Macon County didn’t plan on setting his sights too high. Corbin began his first term in the North Carolina House hoping to do little more than stay out of everyone’s way and, in the very least, catch on to how things get done in Raleigh as quickly as possible.
“My plan going into this is to keep my head down and not do anything stupid,” said Corbin back in January of 2017. “At the same time, I don’t intend to forget my whole reason for running in the first place. My constituents sent me here for a reason. Quite a few reasons, in fact.”
Among those reasons, Corbin mentioned rural education, economic development and improved broadband internet access for the region. These priorities were all key parts of his agenda that he saw fit to adopt from his six years of experience serving as a Macon County Commissioner. It was from that experience that Corbin said he gleaned so much, much of which formed his earliest campaigns, such as broadband access in the mountains.
But a lot ended up happening in American politics last year, and Raleigh was no exception. Fast forward to November, and the slightly more seasoned Corbin found that the free market alone could not fix the disconnect of the west. Instead, he began looking into potential sources of funding that local governments could access in order to facilitate broadband related projects.
“It’s about the possibility of setting up grants that can be applied for by either counties or towns, and they would partner with local providers who want to extend their coverage area,” he said, adding that the idea appeared to be popular with many of his fellow Republicans—most of whom, like him, represent mostly rural areas throughout North Carolina. “My idea is to do it a lot like the Department of Commerce is currently doing economic development grants,” he said. “Like the building re-use grants, that counties or towns can apply for to refurbish old buildings that provide workspaces for folks to come in and create new businesses, or expand their businesses. By doing that, it creates jobs. This would not necessarily be creating jobs, but would create internet access, which in turn could increase jobs, increase folks ability to work from home.”
At the same time rural Republicans like Corbin were exploring avenues of local grants, regional government coalitions like the Southwestern Commission were doing what they could to attract prospective Internet service providers. By eliminating a lot of the hassles that come with expanding infrastructure or access to more customers, the idea was that local governments in the mountains could expedite the process.
So, with the help of officials in local and state government—figures like Corbin and N.C. Rep. Jim Davis—the commission launched an ambitious online survey. Its objective was simple, and two-fold—identify the demand for internet throughout the region, and determine the areas therein lacking in adequate access.
First, the purpose of the survey was to identify the demand for internet on a regional level, and then determine areas where access is poor or nonexistent.
In the end, the survey fell slightly short of its goal to reach 10 percent of the population in the far west. It was, however, considered a substantial sample by Corbin, as it garnered a response from nearly 5,000 residents. In fact, some of the region’s lesser populated areas like Graham County outperformed expectations.
Nearly 5,000 residents and businesses in WNC responded to the survey, which Southwestern Commission Director Sarah Thompson said was a good sample
“We ended up showing that there’s a lot of need and support out here for broadband,” said Thompson. “I think that definitely applies to our leaders out here… Kevin Corbin comes to mind, of course. He’s always reaching out.”
On June 6, Corbin officially introduced HB 1086 as primary sponsor. Titled “Counties/Internet Infrastructure,” the bill seeks to allow counties to partner with local internet carriers with the goal of expanding high speed internet in rural areas. As the reincarnation of previous bills—all of which were drafted by Corbin or his fellow rural representatives—HB 1086 was largely submitted to assist people in the mountains. As a result, it names the 14 westernmost counties as its initial beneficiaries, as they were co-sponsored by three adjacent representatives.
“We think this is common sense legislation that will help rural counties have greater access to quality internet,” said Corbin. “There is no silver bullet here to get this done. In other words, the four of us who authored this bill simply think this is one way to help in our region.”
HB 1086 received an endorsement by the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, and according to Corbin, appeared to have generally favorable appeal on the floor. It passed its first reading on June 7, and landed in finance committee the following week, where it currently remains.