American Rescue Plan Helping North Carolina Complete Access to Broadband

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, January 13, 2023

Weekly Digest

American Rescue Plan Helping North Carolina Complete Access to Broadband

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of January 9-13, 2023

Kevin Taglang

"In the wake of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to empower every household in North Carolina to use fast internet service to link to new skills, global markets, education and healthcare."

—Governor Roy Cooper (D-NC)

North Carolina’s rural population is larger than that of any other state except Texas. More than 4 million people live in rural North Carolina. Over the last 10 years, the population of 18- to 64-year-olds living in these areas has been decreasing, and the population of adults 65 and older is steadily increasing. In addition to these demographic changes, rural North Carolina communities face challenges related to workforce development, capital access, infrastructure, health, land use, and environment and community preservation.

A few years ago, when North Carolina Rural Center President Patrick Woodie visited 80 rural counties in the state to ask leaders what mattered most to their constituents, broadband came up as an issue consistently. According to the Rural Center, access to affordable, high-quality broadband opens up a lot of possibilities for rural populations, allowing residents to do homework and pursue degrees, receive telehealth, and open small businesses. But a lot of internet service providers aren't investing in networks in rural areas because it doesn't make sense for their business. 

In proclaiming North Carolina's Rural Broadband Week in 2021, Governor Roy Cooper (D-NC) found that 100 Mbps downstream/20 Mbps upstream broadband is a crucial tool for North Carolinians to fully participate in today's digital society. At the time, Gov. Cooper articulated the state's broadband goals: by 2025, nearly everyone in the state would have access to 100/20 broadband, North Carolina would be a national leader in broadband adoption, and the state would achieve digital equity which he defined as "residents in every corner of the state not only have access to broadband, but can also fairly adopt it and feel enabled to use it."

In 2021, Gov. Cooper also created the nation's first Office of Digital Equity and Literacy, a part of the state's Division of Broadband and Digital Equity. The office was charged with expanding digital literacy offerings and partnerships across North Carolina, as well as leading the Digital Equity and Inclusion Collaborative and promoting the NC Digital Inclusion Playbook for local municipalities.

North Carolina's Digital Divide

Access to a consistent, high-speed broadband connection is a service that many in North Carolina, especially in rural areas, don’t have. At least 1.1 million residents of North Carolina are affected by the digital divide. At least 122,000 (4%) of urban households and 43,000 (35%) of rural households in rural areas do not have adequate infrastructure. At least 620,000 North Carolinians do not have access to infrastructure for internet speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps. 

Some 270,000 of its 10.7 million residents can’t access the internet at any price; many more can't afford the monthly cost of access. Nearly one-third of rural residents lacked access to adequate broadband infrastructure, Gov. Cooper found in 2021. Another 266,000 households lack infrastructure for internet speeds of 100/20 Mbps.

According to the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s broadband availability index, more than 92% of the state’s population has access to download speeds of at least 100 Mbps, but that’s concentrated in North Carolina’s major urban centers such as Raleigh and Charlotte. In rural Sampson County,  fewer than 60% of residents have speeds that high. Among households in Rutherford County in rural Western North Carolina, fewer than a quarter have access to speeds of 100 Mbps or above. Gov. Cooper identified 18 rural counties and two urban counties with insufficient broadband infrastructure. 

Fewer than 40% of households statewide have access to broadband provided over fiber. The rural-urban gap for fiber technology is even greater across the state. In Cumberland County, North Carolina’s fifth-most populous county, fewer than 10% of households have access to fiber technology.

Affordability is a key contributor to North Carolina's digital divide. A monthly bill of $60 eats up more than 2% of the monthly income of 1.3 million households in the state. And only 47% of households in North Carolina have access to plans at $60 a month or less.

Finally, too many North Carolinians don't have the tools they need to make use of broadband. An estimated 430,000 households do not have a laptop or desktop, and 180,000 also do not have a smartphone. As many as 1.2 million adults in North Carolina might not have the digital skills or tools to participate in the digital economy.

North Carolina's Broadband Plan

Gov. Roy Cooper's Closing the Digital Divide Plan aims to close the digital divide by addressing infrastructure and access, digital literacy, and affordability. By 2026, the state will invest nearly $1 billion in federal and state support:

  • $971 million to rapidly build crucial infrastructure in unserved areas to give internet speeds of 100/20 Mbps to households (with the ability to handle future speeds of 100/100 Mbps).
  • $50 million to create awareness and support digital literacy and skills training to participate in the digital economy.

The plan includes three goals:

  1. Raising the percentage of North Carolina households with high-speed internet subscriptions from 73% to 80%.
  2. Raising the percentage of North Carolina households with children with high-speed internet subscriptions from 81% to 100%.
  3. Increasing adoption rates to 80% across racial subgroups:
  • Native American (currently 57%)
  • Black: (currently 64%)
  • Latinx: (currently 68%)
  • White: (currently 76%)

North Carolina's Broadband Programs

GREAT Grant Program

The Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Grant is a competitive 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 North Carolina Department of Information Technology's Broadband Infrastructure Office.

The North Carolina legislature appropriated $350 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for the GREAT Grant program which targets eligible economically-distressed counties in areas unserved with broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Project deployments must provide minimum speeds of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload, scalable to 100 Mbps symmetrical. The program encourages partnerships with counties, nonprofits and 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. 

A single grant award cannot exceed $4 million. No combination of grant awards involving any single county can exceed $8 million in a fiscal year. The maximum matching requirement is 50%.

Completing Access to Broadband (CAB) Program

On December 20, 2022, the U.S. Treasury approved North Carolina's plan to use $177.7 million of the state's Capital Projects Fund allocation for the Completing Access to Broadband (CAB) program. CAB provides an opportunity for individual counties to partner with the North Carolina Department of Information Technology to fund broadband deployment projects in unserved areas of each county. The state appropriated $400 million from the American Rescue Plan Act for this new program.  

The North Carolina Department of Information Technology and the Broadband Infrastructure Office, in partnership with counties, are developing a competitive process for broadband providers to bid on broadband infrastructure deployments. Participating counties will work with the Broadband Infrastructure Office to mutually identify eligible project areas and develop the scope of work for the procurement of construction, installation and operation of broadband infrastructure in the targeted project areas. The North Carolina Department of Information Technology will provide customizable procurement templates and processes for use in each county. Projects require matching investments from counties and the selected broadband service providers. No county may receive more than $4 million in aggregate funding from the CAB Fund in a single year. 

The CAB Program complements the GREAT Grant program to provide solutions to areas not served by the GREAT Grant. (Projects applied for and not funded under the GREAT Grant can be considered for funding under the CAB Program.)

The state estimates that the support from the Capital Projects Fund will help connect 14% of the locations still lacking high-speed internet access in the state. (North Carolina submitted plans for the remainder of its Capital Projects Fund allocation and those plans are currently under review by Treasury.)

Pole Replacement Program

North Carolina's Pole Replacement Program was established to quickly facilitate the deployment of broadband service to households, businesses, agricultural operations and community anchor institutions in areas unserved with broadband. As broadband providers deploy infrastructure in remote areas, utility poles are critical resources. Fiber and other communications assets can be attached to utility poles within particular spaces on the pole. When utility poles lack space for additional attachments, a pole replacement is required to accommodate the additional infrastructure attachments. This program creates a special fund to reimburse broadband providers for eligible pole replacement costs in connection with qualified projects. 

North Carolina appropriated $100 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for the program. Program requirements for the pole replacement program are currently under development. The program will be launched later in 2023. 

Digital Equity Grants

North Carolina has also invited state government entities to apply for funding to develop or expand large-scale digital equity projects that can be deployed quickly. Applicants must be an entity of the North Carolina state government, which includes:

  • All state government organizations (as outlined here);
  • University of North Carolina System or individual schools, universities, or centers within the system; and
  • North Carolina Community College System or individual schools, colleges or centers within the system.

The state will invest $10 million to support 10-15 government entities. Each applicant may apply for up to $2 million. All projects must serve a statewide or regional audience (more than one county).

‘Internet for All’ Planning Grants

On November 21, 2022, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced that North Carolina received its first “Internet for All” grants to plan for the deployment and adoption of affordable, equitable, and reliable, high-speed Internet throughout the state. North Carolina will receive $5 million to fund:

  • Increasing capacity of the state broadband office;
  • Identification of unserved and underserved locations;
  • Improving existing programs of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology;
  • Engagements with public and stakeholder input throughout the development of the state's five-year plan;
  • Supplementing county government capacity focused on broadband infrastructure and digital equity planning and program delivery.

In addition, North Carolina received $1,415,614.32 to fund:

  • Development of a Statewide Digital Equity Plan;
  • Creation of a Core Planning Team where at least one member will also serve on the BEAD planning team;
  • Deployment of surveys and hosting of listening sessions to understand the barriers faced towards Internet adoption;
  • Subgrants to organizations across the state that serve underserved or underrepresented populations.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Jan 17—Advance Industry Roundtable (Colorado Broadband Office)

Jan 17—MI Connected Future - Warren (Michigan High-Speed Internet Office)

Jan 18—By the Numbers: Understanding and Driving Enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program (Benton Institute for Broadband & Society)

Jan 18—Advance Community Leaders Roundtable (Colorado Broadband Office)

Jan 19—Kansas Broadband Summit (Kansas Office of Broadband)

Jan 19—Internet for All: How Minority Serving Institutions Can Help Shape State Broadband and Digital Equity Plans and Initiatives (National Telecommunications and Information Administration)

Jan 19—How Can Policymakers Deter Fake Online Reviews? (Center for Data Innovation)

Jan 19—MI Connected Future - Pontiac (Michigan High-Speed Internet Office)

Jan 20—Mobilizing the Nation's DEI Leaders for Inclusion Impact (National Collaborative for Digital Equity)

Jan 24—Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund Listening Session (NTIA)

Jan 24—MI Connected Future - Jackson (Michigan High-Speed Internet Office)

Jan 24—Colorado Digital Equity Committee Meeting (Colorado Broadband Office)

Jan 25—Beyond Residential: Capturing New Markets in Your Community (telecompetitor)

Jan 26—Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting

Jan 26—MI Connected Future - Dundee (Michigan High-Speed Internet Office)

Jan 31—The State of U.S. Broadband in 2022: Reassessing the Whole Picture (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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