Legislation and state funding would remove barriers to rural broadband
Raleigh, N.C. – Legislation and budget funds to facilitate high-speed internet access in underserved communities of North Carolina were both approved by the state House of Representatives this month.
House Bill 387 Electric Co-Op Rural Broadband Services passed the state House on Tuesday and would allow internet providers to use existing utility infrastructure to connect broadband access to rural regions of North Carolina at a lower cost.
The legislation seeks to let electric cooperatives offer rural customers internet with existing fiber infrastructure, so that broadband service would not take any more space on a property than current utility cabling.
The state budget proposal passed by the North Carolina House last week also commits another $30 million to the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grant program.
The GREAT fund was designed in 2018 to expedite the deployment of high-speed broadband to rural parts of the state by encouraging partnerships and competition among utility providers. It received $10 million in the state budget last year.
Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union), a co-chair of the House Appropriations Committee and the House Energy and Public Utilities Committee, said both programs incentive broadband companies to provide higher speeds and more access to broadband service across North Carolina.
“In today’s global economy, broadband access is as essential as electricity,” Rep. Arp said. “These are innovative steps to connect North Carolina’s urban and rural communities with economy opportunity.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture last year announced a $600 million grant fund to be used by telecommunications companies and rural electric utilities for connecting underserved areas across the country.
H.B. 387 removes state regulations that impede electric membership cooperatives from receiving those funds in North Carolina, and the GREAT program allows North Carolina entities to receive state and federal broadband grants for new deployments.
“Improving broadband access is a top priority of the North Carolina House – it’s something we work on every day,” said Rep. John Szoka (R-Cumberland), a co-chair of the House Committee on Energy and Public Utilities.
“These broadband programs were considered for months to bring stakeholders from local governments and utilities together to find a successful approach to expanding economic opportunity where we need it most.”
Proponents of H.B. 387 said electric cooperatives were created to bring electricity to rural parts of North Carolina and are well-suited to do the same with high-speed internet access.
Most rural communities in North Carolina have limited or no options for basic broadband internet, said Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), a co-sponsor of H.B. 387.
“This bill would connect our citizens facing limited internet access to high-speed broadband through a proven infrastructure grid,” Lewis said.
“Our approach could provide not only an economic stimulus across North Carolina, but education opportunities as well for citizens in rural regions competing in the 21st century online marketplace.”
Both proposals were sent to the North Carolina Senate for consideration.