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Bill that provides additional funding for broadband infrastructure passes the House unanimously

Image: NC League of Municipalities

Bill comes on the heels of new federal effort targeting underserved rural communities

The North Carolina House of Representatives passed the COVID/Supplementary GREAT Grant Period bill unanimously last night.

The bill provides an additional $30 million in funding to the North Carolina Department of Information Technology to “provide a special supplementary grant process” for broadband infrastructure projects through the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grant program.

Applications for the supplementary grant will be accepted from Sept. 1-15, and grants will be awarded on or before Dec. 30.

The bill passed without debate at around 9:40 last night and was sent to the Senate Rules Committee this morning.

The primary sponsors of HB 1105 are Reps. Dean Arp (R-Union), Jason Saine (R-Lincoln), Brenden Jones (R-Columbus, Robeson) and Robert Reives II (D-Chatham, Durham).

At a meeting last month of the Governor’s Task Force on Connecting North Carolina, HB 1105 was among those described as “broadband-adjacent.” The other two were HB 1228 and HB 1122, which have been stuck in House Appropriations and House Rules, respectively, since last month.

At that meeting, Stan Fendley, the director of legislative and regulatory policy for Corning, gave a presentation on the FCC’s Rural Broadband Auction. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) has a $20.4 billion budget to be disbursed in two phases in a reverse auction format: “operators [will] bid against each other to see who will take the least amount of government support to provide broadband in a given area,” according to Fendley. Preference will be given to the fastest providers.

The first phase of the auction is scheduled to begin on October 22, and “will target over six million homes and businesses in census blocks that are entirely unserved by voice and broadband with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps,” according to the FCC. The FCC will accept fund applications from July 1 to July 15, and bidding will start on October 29.

Up to $16 billion of the $20.4 billion will be made available for the first phase of the auction; the remainder of that amount (that remains unused in the first phase) plus the remaining $4.4 billion will be awarded in Phase II, which will “cover locations in census blocks that are partially served, as well as locations not funded in Phase I.”

Rural America needs gigabit broadband “because they are being left behind,” said Fendley. “A wholesale replacement of U.S. telecom infrastructure is occurring” largely in the urban and suburban areas of the country.

“Meanwhile… many rural areas still lack basic 25/3 Mbps service,” Fendley said.

“In North Carolina… our adoption rates [of 25/3 Mbps service] are troublingly low,” said Jeff Sural, the director of the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office, in a meeting of the Information Technology Strategy Board earlier this month. “We are lower than the national average.”

The maps of the areas in North Carolina eligible for the RDOF and the GREAT grant program are nearly identical, although there are some areas in the southeastern part of the state that are ineligible for a GREAT grant but eligible for the RDOF. According to Fendley, state funding, such as the money provided through the GREAT grant program, cannot be used for the same projects as RDOF money.

“By 2025, approximately 50% of homes [in the U.S.] will have a direct fiber connection,” said Fendley.

This is according to a study by the Fiber Broadband Association commissioned in September of last year by the FCC, which found that getting that figure to 80% of homes would require an additional $52 billion. Reaching 90% of homes would require another $18 billion, or $70 billion in total.

“RDOF is an opportunity to catch up,” said Fendley.

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