Budget's grants could bring faster internet


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, June 11, 2018

Extremely slow internet remains a problem throughout rural swaths of northeastern North Carolina, but local officials are hoping next year's state budget will help.

Tucked into the $23.9 billion state budget lawmakers have approved — and are currently in process of affirming by overriding Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto — is a $10 million program to provide grants for broadband internet service in unserved areas in “economically distressed,” or Tier 1, counties.

According to the latest N.C. Department of Commerce rankings, area Tier 1 counties include Camden, Chowan, Pasquotank and Perquimans. Currituck County is considered less distressed; it holds a Tier 2 ranking.

In Chowan, County Manager Kevin Howard said internet access varies widely in his county. Access is decent in and around Edenton, where there's nearby “middle-mile” fiber from the nonprofit MCNC to tap into, but not so much in the northern and southern ends of the county.

“I'm talking dial-up speeds,” Howard said of some parts of the county.

Broadband speeds are a utility and a “necessity” rivaling electrical and water-sewer service in importance, Howard said. With Edenton having decent access, he said Chowan's limited broadband hasn't affected business recruitment so much as residential growth.

In Camden, County Manager Ken Bowman similarly said the county has decent internet around the county courthouse, but there are many neighborhoods, particularly in the northern part of the county, that need broadband.

The problem with serving very rural areas is it would be very costly to run enough broadband fiber to serve their entire, widely distributed populations. The state budget would seek to defray those costs through what state officials are calling the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT, program.

The program allows the N.C. Department of Information Technology to award grants of up to $2 million each to private internet providers to help with the infrastructure costs of setting up service in unserved, rural areas.

With only $10 million in funding, however, it would be a very competitive process.

The legislation provides that public-private partnerships and projects with low costs per household served would receive priority. Projects that provide download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second — previously the Federal Communication Commission's threshold for broadband — would score higher. The FCC proposed lowering that standard to 10 Mbps last year, despite projections that internet usage will continue rising rapidly in coming years, based on a Cisco study last year.

One organization that may help area counties secure broadband grants is the Hertford-based Albemarle Commission, which last year surveyed broadband availability across its 10-county service area.

“The GREAT program can make a difference in our region,” Albemarle Commission Executive Director Cathy Davison said in an email last week. More than $10 million in funding would be better, but it's still a “great start,” she said.

Davison also said the commission would look to coordinate public-private partnerships between businesses and local governments, relying on the commission's demand survey to find the best targets for broadband and state grants.

Davison also said that, in any request for proposals for broadband, local governments should require 25 Mbps speeds “at a minimum.”

The Albemarle Commission also looks to promote wireless internet services, which Davison calls more cost-effective than trying to run fiber to all rural areas. She pointed to Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County's partnership with Eastern Shore Communications as a model. The city and county have both spent tens of thousands of dollars installing short stretches of fiber to allow the company to beam out wireless from government-owned water towers. The company's network in Elizabeth City is months behind schedule, however.

Camden is one county that might emulate Elizabeth City. Bowman said the county hired Eastern Shore to perform a study on how broadband service might be established, including by setting up “monopoles” to mount wireless transceiving equipment. If Camden commissioners want to take the next step, the county will need to solicit vendors to actually establish service, he said.

The GREAT program is not yet law, but likely will be next week. The Senate has overridden Cooper’s veto and the House is scheduled to do so on Tuesday. Notably, Cooper opposes the budget as under-investing in numerous areas. He called for $20 million for rural broadband development.