Buncombe flags Sandy Mush, Broad River for broadband expansion

Buncombe County broadband service map
THE RED ZONE: Recent analysis by Buncombe County staffers found that Sandy Mush in the northwest and Broad River in the southeast were the county's two biggest areas of need for expanded internet infrastructure. Graphic courtesy of Buncombe County

Calling the data used by the Federal Communications Commission to assess the availability of broadband internet “horrendous,” Buncombe County’s Tim Love unveiled new research conducted by the county to identify underserved areas. After Buncombe staffers checked thousands of individual addresses for availability of broadband service at 100 megabits per second or better, the county’s director of economic development and governmental relations told the Board of Commissioners at a May 4 briefing, Sandy Mush in the northwest and Broad River in the southeast had emerged as the two biggest pockets of need.

Those areas will now be prioritized as Buncombe moves forward with a request for proposals from internet providers to expand broadband access. Although some addresses in Asheville also lack access, Love continued, providers will likely expand service in the middle of the county without government intervention due to the area’s denser population.

Companies bidding for the RFP will be asked to deliver download speeds of at least 25 Mbps, increasing to at least 100 Mbps within three years and 1 gigabit per second within a decade. Love gave a timeline that would place a contract before the commissioners sometime in July. The county has yet to commit a specific amount of funding toward the project or identify what pot of money would be used.

Buncombe is slated to receive more than $51 million over the next year from the American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief package, and federal guidelines specifically mention broadband infrastructure as an authorized use. But North Carolina state law, Love said, currently prohibits counties from spending federal dollars for that purpose.

That situation could change with Senate Bill 689, which has both Democratic and Republican sponsorship in the General Assembly. Love called passage of the bill a “critical point” in broadband efforts and said county staff had communicated with the local legislative delegation in support of the measure. He also mentioned Senate Bill 547, bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by Buncombe’s Democratic Sen. Julie Mayfield, as another way to give counties more flexibility in their efforts to promote broadband access.

In other news

During its regular meeting on May 4, the board unanimously approved adding Juneteenth as a paid holiday for Buncombe employees, to be observed on June 19 or the immediately preceding Friday. That date marks the anniversary of an 1865 announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation by Union soldiers to enslaved people in Texas and “signifies freedom and liberation for African Americans in the United States,” according to a presentation by county Human Resources Director Sharon Burke.

Commissioner Parker Sloan noted that his employer, Asheville-based solar firm Cypress Creek Renewables, had made Juneteenth a paid day off in 2020. He said he hadn’t previously been aware of the date’s significance and called its celebration a great educational opportunity for the county.

Al Whitesides, the board’s only Black member, said Juneteenth had long been widely acknowledged in the Western U.S. but hadn’t caught on east of the Mississippi River until recent years. “I think it should be celebrated by our staff and the county, because it is an important date in history,” he said, before moving to approve the holiday.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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