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The Great Broadband Expansion

On May 26, the House Appropriations Committee unanimously passed House Bill 947, a legislative bill allocating $750 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding toward statewide broadband growth.

The bill, also referred to as the GREAT Broadband Expansion Act, would allocate $400 million to establish the “Completing Access to Broadband” (CAB) program providing grants to counties to expand broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas. In addition, a $350 million allocation would create a process to administer the state’s existing “Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology” (GREAT) program and make several changes to this program.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 1.1 million North Carolina households lack adequate broadband access. This statistic was especially experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The barriers of unreliable Internet sources in homes became known as the “homework gap.” Lawmakers hope to eliminate these barriers, particularly in rural areas, to provide equal educational and economic opportunities across the State.

“What we’ve done is built this plan so that it partners and maximizes what the counties have available to them through the funds that are being given to them through the American Rescue Plan,” Rep. Dean Arp of District 69 in Union County, a co-sponsor of the bill, said. “We’re matching it with the state funds, and then a provider comes in as well, and that’s how we’re able to leverage more dollars and really participate with the counties in extending the broadband.”

Whereas the GREAT program is a partnership led by providers, the CAB program is led by counties to select broadband providers through a bid process. It requires internet providers to pay a portion of the projects in a cost-sharing provision. Providers risk having to pay back their grants if service is not maintained.

“This pandemic brought us a once-in-a-generation challenge, and these funds have brought us a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Gov. Roy Cooper said. In learning from the barriers experienced during COVID-19, lawmakers seek to maximize American Rescue Plan Act funding while providing opportunities for broadband growth in unserved and underserved areas.

HB947 was referred to the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate on May 27, 2021.

Written by: Lauren Tayara