Raleigh, N.C. – Another legislative proposal to remove barriers to rural broadband across North Carolina received final approval from the state General Assembly on Tuesday.
Senate Bill 310 Electric Co-Op Rural Broadband Services was passed by the state House of Representatives in a 114-1 vote to facilitate high-speed internet access through electric cooperatives’ utility infrastructure in rural parts of North Carolina.
The bill removes state regulations that impeded electric membership cooperatives from receiving federal grant funds for connecting underserved areas across the country. Its sponsors argue high-speed internet access is as critical to North Carolinians as basic utilities like water and electricity.
“This will remove barriers to rural broadband by allowing the state’s electric cooperatives to seek federal grant money to provide broadband services, and allow them to add fiber optic networks using their existing infrastructure,” said Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union), a co-sponsor of the bill and co-chair of the House Committee on Energy and Utilities.
The bill’s sponsors says electric cooperatives already deliver electricity to rural parts of North Carolina and are poised do the same with broadband access.
It is the second major broadband program approved by the state General Assembly the last two years. Nearly $10 million of grants from the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) program established in 2018 have already been awarded to 21 applicants in 19 counties.
“It’s critical that we connect every corner of North Carolina to the 21st century economy,” said Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett).
“The combination of the GREAT program and partnerships between electric cooperatives and broadband providers could be a game-changer for underserved regions.”
The GREAT program funds matching grants to broadband service providers and electric cooperatives that lower financial barriers to high-speed internet in economically disadvantaged counties.
Those approved grants will help nearly 10,000 households and about 600 businesses connect to high-speed broadband, according to the North Carolina Department of Information Technology.
“This bill and the GREAT program represent promises kept to the people of North Carolina,” said Rep. John Szoka (R-Cumberland). “We heard this was a priority from our constituents and have worked together across the aisle to deliver economic opportunity where we need it most.”
The state House’s proposed budget provides $150 million to the GREAT program over 10 years from the State Capital Infrastructure Fund (SCIF).