2-10-2022 – GREAT grant helps fund broadband access

Posted on: February 10th, 2022 by admin No Comments

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February 9, 2022

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By CADY DAVIS CDAVIS@NEWSTOPICNEWS.COM

Feb 9, 2022

 

LENOIR — Areas of Caldwell County without high-speed internet service will soon have increased access with the help of state and federal government funds.

 

The first Caldwell County homeowner has recently been connected to high-speed internet as part of the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grant project led by Blue Ridge Energy and SkyBest Communications.

 

“[This project] made some serious needs come to light,” said Renee Whitener, director of public relations for Blue Ridge Energy.

 

Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Brad Shields from Blue Ridge Energy explained that Caldwell County received $2.7 million from the state for the GREAT grant, but an additional $3.9 million match was provided from Blue Ridge, SkyBest Communications, and the county.

 

Work on the project began last March, and so far, more than 20 homes have been connected.

 

The GREAT grant, administered by the NC Department of Information Technology’s Division of Broadband and Digital Equity, is a competitive federal grant program that provides funding to private sector broadband providers to deploy last-mile broadband infrastructure to unserved areas of North Carolina. The original GREAT grant program was launched in 2019, and subsequently became a recurring state-funded grant program within the NCDIT Broadband Infrastructure Office.

 

So far, the program has invested $56 million in tax dollars and an additional $35 million in private investment to connect more than 40,000 households and businesses in NC to high-speed internet.

 

According to ncbroadband.gov, $350 million is appropriated from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for the GREAT program. The current 2021-2022 funding round may award up to $350 million in federal ARPA funding. The application window opened Monday, Jan. 31st, and applications are due Monday, April 4th.

 

Awards can be made within eligible economically-distressed counties in areas unserved with broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps (megabits per second) download and three Mbps upload. Project deployments must provide minimum speeds of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload, scalable to 100 Mbps symmetrical. To put this into perspective, the average cable internet speed is around 10 Mbps.

 

The program encourages partnerships with counties, nonprofits, or other internet service providers. Grants require matching investments from private broadband provider grantees, leveraging funding to deploy infrastructure to households, businesses, and farms in the most rural and remote areas of the state.

 

Gov. Roy Cooper’s office recently announced that qualified internet service providers and electric membership cooperatives can now apply for the recent round of GREAT grants. Up to $350 million will be provided to expand high-speed internet in the state this year, the largest amount yet thanks to the infusion of federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan.

 

“High-speed internet is critical for North Carolinians to be able to work, learn, run a business, or access health care,” Cooper said. “We want all communities in our state to have these opportunities, and this round of grants is an important step toward closing the digital divide, especially in rural areas.”

 

The “digital divide” is defined as the gap between those who have access to technology, the internet, and digital literacy training, and those who do not. It affects all generations, both rural and urban communities, as well as a wide variety of industries and sectors.

 

For example, the “Homework Gap” impacts Caldwell County students who are unable to complete assigned homework that requires internet access.

 

Employers and their workforce are affected when workers are left behind who do not have digital skills and/or access to the internet and computing devices, which also impacts efficiency and competitiveness.

 

With the rise of telehealth services as viable options for contacting health care providers, people without access to broadband and computing devices will lack access to these additional tools.

 

Residents without access to broadband and computing devices cannot access government services online or participate in community activities that require access.

 

U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) and several of his Senate colleagues recently sent a letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) expressing the importance of reliable broadband service for rural America. They requested that federally-funded broadband projects prioritize unserved areas instead of overbuilding existing broadband infrastructure in areas with reliable broadband service.

 

“NTIA has an opportunity to make substantial impact on connecting rural America,” the senators wrote. “However, doing so will require that [NTIA] outline rules that specifically prohibit overbuilding and that set clear criteria to ensure projects targeted at unserved areas are actually prioritized. The regulations and methodology for the distribution of these funds must prioritize projects that are connecting customers and communities to broadband for the first time and avoid projects in areas where reliable broadband is already being provided or where there is an enforceable commitment to build high-speed broadband using federal or state funds.”

 

The senators continued, “Further, [NTIA] must work in concert with other broadband programs to avoid duplication of state or federal government efforts, and [the] department should ensure that all technological options are on the table to bring broadband service to unserved areas. This will ensure that all customers, regardless of location, have the opportunity to benefit from this program.”

 

Blue Ridge Energy plans to continue working with SkyBest to pursue additional state or federal grants for other parts of northern Caldwell County and across Blue Ridge Energy’s service area.

 

To determine eligibility and to sign up, interested residents can visit www.SkyBest.com/CaldwellGrant21 or call SkyBest at 1-800-759-2226.

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