The COVID19 pandemic catapulted the issue of broadband into the forefront of everyone’s minds over the last year — and with the help of NC State Senator Kevin Corbin, (R-Macon) broad-band in Macon County and across WNC will be getting a significant boost in the coming years.
Senator Corbin began working on getting internet grant money to WNC as soon as he was elected to the state legislature.
“One of the very first things I campaigned on was getting inter-net to the folks of WNC and I am so proud to be delivering on that promise,” said Senator Corbin.
Four years ago, as a member of the NC House, Corbin and fellow House member Josh Dobson wrote the HB431, also known as The FIBER Act. The FIBER Act would have allowed cities and counties to invest in the internet infrastructure and then lease to providers.
Large internet providers fought the bill but out of those discussions, NC’s GREAT Grant program was formed. Those GREAT grants have amounted to a total of $99 million over the past four years with a significant portion of that money coming to WNC.
Senator Corbin announced additional resources for rural broadband last week when he confirmed that millions of dollars had been approved for broadband for Macon County and surrounding counties.
Corbin, along with many other members of the legislature began to lobby the federal government to get involved and fund rural grants.
The grants were finally announced this week and are called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is the Commission’s next step in bridging the digital divide.
On Aug. 1, 2019, the Commission adopted a Notice of Pro-posed Rulemaking (NPRM) pro-posing to establish the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to bring high speed fixed broadband service to rural homes and small businesses that lack it.
The grants have now been al-located and the “auction results” have just been released and it’s good news for WNC.
“The federal grants coming to N.C. amount to a total of $166 million; $45 million is going to Haywood and west,” Corbin said. “A total of 155,000 customers will be hooked up to high-speed internet in N.C. and we are getting 35,000 hookups in the seven west-ern counties.”
The bid process is referred to as a “reverse bid.” A dollar figure is given to the bidders and they bid by saying how many customers they can hook up for the money. In addition, the providers have to deliver some matching funds for infrastructure which makes the fund go even further.
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will ensure that networks stand the test of time by prioritizing higher network speeds and lower latency, so that those benefitting from these networks will be able to use tomorrow’s Internet applications as well as today’s.
The funds were allocated through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) who conducted the bid process. By the way the grants are written, this first phase has to go to Census Clusters, or a densely settled area, that is unserved by high-speed internet. Phase II will be bid later this year and goes to the next group that has some, but very limited, internet connectivity.
Corbin said he and other WNC legislators will be working closely with the State IT Department and the providers to make sure the work gets done in a timely manner.
“The grants allow up to six years for the customers to be hooked up,” Corbin said, “but that is too long. Work should begin within a few weeks and customers will begin receiving their service shortly.”
Charter Communications won a bid for $9,09,136 to pro-vide broadband for 8,191 customers across Macon County. The proposal serves residents of the Highlands community and according to the maps provided by the Cooperative Network Services on the RDOF Winners, underserved portions of Highlands such as the Clear Creek and Blue Valley communities are slated to receive service under the proposal.
Huge swaths of areas bordered by NC 28, NC 106, Rich Gap Road, Clear Creek Road and more will be getting much needed service, as will areas in Cashiers.
Along NC 106 that includes Scaly Mountain and areas down to the Georgia line.
Charter also won the bid for $16,994,261 to provide 11,128 customers in Jackson County with service.
Senator Corbin said he plans to meet with Charter executives in Raleigh this week and will have a better idea of a timeframe in the coming days.
According to Charter Communications, the expansion into WNC is part of a larger company-wide expansion beginning this year. Charter expects to invest ap-proximately $5 billion to support its buildout initiative – offset by $1.2 billion in support won from the RDOF auction – expanding Charter’s network to lower-density, mostly rural communities that do not have access to broadband service of at least 25/3 Mbps.
The network Charter will build in these rural areas will offer 1 Gbps high–speed broadband access to all newly served customer locations with starting speeds of 200 Mbps, enabling consumers to engage in remote learning, work, telemedicine and other applications that require high-bandwidth, low-latency connectivity.
These new customer locations also will benefit from Charter’s high-value Spectrum pricing and packaging structure, including its Spectrum Mobile™, Spectrum TV and Spectrum Voice offerings.
The Company will continue to apply its customer-friendly policies in newly served regions, including no data caps, modem fees or annual contracts, combined with high-quality service provided by US-based insourced employees.
In addition to the federal grants, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper signed Senate Bill 36 into law last week, which approved another $30 million for the state’s GREAT Grant program which provides funding grants for rural broad-band expansion across the state.
By Brittney Lofthouse