Federal grant will provide internet service to thousands | News

Thanks to funding through the Federal Communications Commission, 5,732 customers in Haywood County will be among those receiving broadband services in North Carolina.

Charter Communications will be receiving a $7.61 million grant through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that will serve 5,479 customers in Haywood, while Space Exploration Technologies will be receiving $517,287 to serve 244 customers in the county.

“The federal grants coming to North Carolina amount to a total of $166 million,” said N.C. Sen. Kevin Corbin, a Republican who represents counties from Haywood west.

Corbin said of the total grants awarded in the state, $45 million is going to counties in his district.

“A total of 155,000 customers will be hooked up to high speed internet, and we are getting 35,000 hookups in the seven western counties,” he said.

The funds were awarded through a process called a “reverse bid,” Corbin said.

“A dollar figure is given to the bidders and they bid by saying how many customers they can hook up for the money,” he said. “In addition, the providers have to provide some matching funds for infrastructure, which makes the fund go even further.”

The first phase of funding is required to be used for Census clusters that are unserved by high-speed internet. Phase II will be bid later this year and goes to the next group that has very limited internet connectivity, he added.

Under the FCC guidelines, successful bid applicants have up to six years to provide the promised service, a time Corbin said is far too long. He said he and other legislators will investigate whether the time frame can be sped up and will be working closely with the state’s IT Department, as well as the the providers, to help facilitate the work where possible.

State funding for broadband expansion will continue, Corbin said, with another $39 million being set aside for the second round of GREAT funding this year.

“The legislature is not directly in control of anything,” Corbin pointed out. “We’re in a tug of war here with the lack of connectivity. The state has put up money for this and now that we’ve got the feds involved, we’re both pulling in same direction. No one entity will solve this. There is no silver bullet.”

Good news

The announcement is good news, said county leaders, who are still reeling from the loss of a $4 million state GREAT grant proposal that would have served nearly 1,500 households.

“This is all great news for the future of broadband of Haywood County, but not the end of the story,” said Deborah Porto, who chairs the county’s broadband committee. “Even with the anticipated Charter expansion, the ARC grant and the many other efforts ongoing in Haywood County, there will still be many, many locations without broadband. We need to keep working hard to find ways to provide broadband service to everyone in Haywood County.”

Once the Charter system is built out, it could mean customers will have several choices for an internet service provider, something Corbin indicated will be good.

“We need as much competition as we can get,” he said.

Broadband championCorbin, a Macon County Republican, served two terms in the N.C. House of Representative representing H.D. 120, and has long championed increased broadband service in Western North Carolina.

Corbin, along with fellow House member Josh Dobson sponsored the Fiber Act, a bill that would have allowed cities and counties to invest in internet infrastructure and then lease to providers.

Large internet providers fought the bill, he said, but the discussions led to the state’s GREAT grant program.

In a Monday interview, Corbin said he intends to reintroduce the Fiber Act with modifications to help ensure its passage.

“Those GREAT grants have amounted to a total of $99 million over the past four years with much of that money coming to Western North Carolina,” he said.

Other western counties receiving funds from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity grants included:

• Cherokee County, Space Exploration Technologies, 3,229 customers served, $2.9 million;

• Clay County, Space Exploration Technologies, 1,587 customers served — $1.46 million;

• Graham County, Charter Communications, 2,333 customers served, $3.4 million;

• Haywood County, Charter Communications, 5,479 customers served, $7.1 million; and Space Exploration Technologies, 224 customers served, $517,287;

• Jackson County, Charter Communications, 11,128 customers served — $17 million;

Macon County, Charter Communications, 8,191 customers served, $9 million;

Swain County, Charter Communications, 3,400 customers served, $5.3 million.