Millions in federal grants to enhance broadband in WNC counties

Some Western North Carolina counties will see a boost in broadband speed and access through a combination of federal and state grants. Federal, state and local officials have long recognized a need to expand and enhance broadband access in Western North Carolina counties. For many counties, the previous year underscored that recognition. “COVID-19 has really emphasized the issues around the need for access for commerce, for education, and for health. Telehealth is a growing area,” said Transylvania County Manager Jaime Laughter. Back in 2019, county leaders compiled a report and found much of the county didn’t have broadband access. Some areas only had 7 megabytes per second of service. “It opened the door for conversation with our local provider, Comporium,” Laughter said. “It also helped us to really think through what role the county could play in support.” A $2.8 million grant was recently awarded from the state’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology Program, which provides grants to private providers of broadband services to facilitate the deployment of broadband service to unserved areas of North Carolina, according to the state website. With the state grants in place, Comporium, Transylvania County’s largest telecommunications provider, pledged to commit another $4.2 million to enhance speed and service to underserved parts of the county. “When fiber is in place — it is a 24-month project — citizens of Transylvania county will have access of up to one gigabyte (per second),” said Shelia Carland with Comporium. “It’s huge and reflects the commitment that Comporium has to Transylvania County. At the federal level, $45 million worth of grants from the FCC will be distributed to counties including Haywood, Jackson and Swain to be used by telecommunications companies within the next six years to enhance speed and access. Sen. Kevin Corbin, a state representative in Haywood County, said he has been pushing for the funding for years. “This first round is to completely underserved census districts, so it’s really benefiting rural areas like my own,” he said of the federal grants. Haywood County Community College leaders said they are also happy with the move. “The expansion of broadband to Western North Carolina would benefit HCC students greatly,” President Shelley White said in a statement to WYFF News 4. “We have many students that live in areas with limited or no internet access so this expanded service would not only provide better access for all students but also create equity for them in an environment that leans even more heavily on the use of technology for educational purposes. HCC is offering a technology lending program through our library which lends hot spots and other equipment to students to support their technology needs. Even with these services, and wi-fi access locations on campus, not all students are able to easily access what they need for their education. This expansion project is critical to our area and we are looking forward to seeing how it develops in the near future.”While the companies would have six years to use federal grants, Corbin said he’d consider working with lawmakers to speed that timeline. “Maybe two to three years,” he said. “The six-year point is a lot of time and a lot of people think that’s unreasonable and I do too.” Laughter said Transylvania County provides public Wi-Fi access at nine community centers throughout the county.

Some Western North Carolina counties will see a boost in broadband speed and access through a combination of federal and state grants.

Federal, state and local officials have long recognized a need to expand and enhance broadband access in Western North Carolina counties.

For many counties, the previous year underscored that recognition.

“COVID-19 has really emphasized the issues around the need for access for commerce, for education, and for health. Telehealth is a growing area,” said Transylvania County Manager Jaime Laughter.

Back in 2019, county leaders compiled a report and found much of the county didn’t have broadband access. Some areas only had 7 megabytes per second of service.

“It opened the door for conversation with our local provider, Comporium,” Laughter said. “It also helped us to really think through what role the county could play in support.”

A $2.8 million grant was recently awarded from the state’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology Program, which provides grants to private providers of broadband services to facilitate the deployment of broadband service to unserved areas of North Carolina, according to the state website.

With the state grants in place, Comporium, Transylvania County’s largest telecommunications provider, pledged to commit another $4.2 million to enhance speed and service to underserved parts of the county.

“When fiber is in place — it is a 24-month project — citizens of Transylvania county will have access of up to one gigabyte (per second),” said Shelia Carland with Comporium. “It’s huge and reflects the commitment that Comporium has to Transylvania County.

At the federal level, $45 million worth of grants from the FCC will be distributed to counties including Haywood, Jackson and Swain to be used by telecommunications companies within the next six years to enhance speed and access.

Sen. Kevin Corbin, a state representative in Haywood County, said he has been pushing for the funding for years.

“This first round is to completely underserved census districts, so it’s really benefiting rural areas like my own,” he said of the federal grants.

Haywood County Community College leaders said they are also happy with the move.

“The expansion of broadband to Western North Carolina would benefit HCC students greatly,” President Shelley White said in a statement to WYFF News 4.

“We have many students that live in areas with limited or no internet access so this expanded service would not only provide better access for all students but also create equity for them in an environment that leans even more heavily on the use of technology for educational purposes. HCC is offering a technology lending program through our library which lends hot spots and other equipment to students to support their technology needs. Even with these services, and wi-fi access locations on campus, not all students are able to easily access what they need for their education. This expansion project is critical to our area and we are looking forward to seeing how it develops in the near future.”

While the companies would have six years to use federal grants, Corbin said he’d consider working with lawmakers to speed that timeline.

“Maybe two to three years,” he said. “The six-year point is a lot of time and a lot of people think that’s unreasonable and I do too.”

Laughter said Transylvania County provides public Wi-Fi access at nine community centers throughout the county.