By Shelby Harris, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
The night before Sally Weldon learned her Buncombe County home would soon receive access to high-speed internet, she and her husband watched a small loading icon ceaselessly spin on their TV.
“Finally, we looked at each other because it just kept going,” Weldon said.
“It was just Hulu. We’d turned off everything else. We looked at each other and said, ‘It just isn’t worth it. It’s just not worth all these delays.’”
The couple have lived in their north Buncombe County home since before the internet existed.
Ensconced in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Weldon’s house isn’t a prime candidate for reliable internet access. There is no fiber-optic internet infrastructure available. The thick canopy of trees over their mountain home prevents connecting through cellular data, and connecting through a satellite is notoriously expensive.
That left Weldon with no choice but to get spotty internet connection through a Frontier Communications home phone line.
This has impacted several parts of their lives. Weldon, who works in information technology, can’t work from home. When their granddaughter visited while in virtual schooling, she could barely tune into class.
Soon, however, they’ll no longer have to worry about incessantly spinning wheels on their screens as the N.C. Department of Information Technology, or NCDIT, granted Frontier $3.3 million to install broadband fiber infrastructure in north Buncombe County.
Buncombe County Director of Economic Development Tim Love said the project, which is slated to take roughly two years and be available to customers as soon as it’s installed, will give roughly 1,000 households from Woodfin to the Buncombe/Madison county line access to broadband fiber — considered to be the most reliable internet source.
Funding for the expansion, which was announced Aug. 31, comes from the state’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT, grant.
The GREAT grant is the state’s largest bucket of money to expand high-speed internet access. Internet service providers apply for the grant by assigning some of their own money to an infrastructure project and asking the state also to provide a certain amount. County governments, such as Buncombe County, often contribute an amount as well.
According to Nate Denny, NCDIT secretary for broadband and digital equity, 93 of North Carolina’s 100 counties collaborated with providers to submit GREAT grant applications.
As of late September, 81 of those counties had received GREAT grant money during the current funding cycle. The others, Denny said in August, still “will definitely get an award.”
Provider protests cause holdups
Internet providers collaborated with local governments to submit GREAT grant applications, which were due last spring. The state reviewed the applications and allowed other providers to “protest,” or report they already serve the areas proposed in the application.
These protests caused a holdup in the state’s ability to award the $350 million earmarked for GREAT grants, Denny said.
“If there’s a protest, we have to wait 15 days to issue an award, after we’ve notified the protester,” he said in August.
“The result of that is that we’ve got projects that we can score, but we can’t award them just yet.”
The state still has about $80 million left to fund this round of GREAT grant applications, and Buncombe officials hope to get some of that money to expand broadband access in other areas of the county, such as the southeast corner, which Love said is one of the highest-need areas.
Buncombe worked with Frontier, AT&T, Spectrum, Skyrunner Internet and French Broad Electric Membership Corp. to submit six GREAT grant applications — Skyrunner submitted two — that planned to serve roughly 7,500 households countywide.
Other service providers protested about 3,800 of those households, so they were disqualified from the proposed projects.
“I’m fairly certain no one validated the protest, so I think companies were taken on their word that they, in fact, can provide service to these areas,” Love said.
Using ARPA funds for these expansion projects means a stringent timeline was placed on the state, county and internet providers, as all of the federal COVID recovery money must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
“There’s literally no way anyone would have validated all 3,800 of those households because who’s got time for that,” Love said. “And so are some of those 3,800 households in fact served? I’m sure. Are there some that are unserved? I’m also sure.
“What I’m even more sure of is that nobody has the right answer except the people that live in those households who were never asked if the protest was valid.”
Though the protests may have made the process a little slower-moving than expected, Denny said more funding awards are coming and will be announced as the state continues to sift through protests.
ARPA for broadband
In addition to the $3.3 million awarded by the state through the GREAT grant, Frontier and Buncombe County have each pledged $300,000 to the project.
Buncombe County is contributing its portion using American Rescue Plan Act funds, which the U.S. Department of the Treasury disbursed to local governments beginning in May 2021 in an effort to assuage the social and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Buncombe set aside $6 million of its more than $50.7 million in ARPA funding to fund broadband expansion by bolstering the state’s GREAT grant.
Other Buncombe ARPA dollars have gone toward supporting nonprofit organizations and paying county employee salaries. Find more information about how the county is spending ARPA on its comprehensive COVID relief spending webpage.
A game changer
Allison Ellis, Frontier Communications senior vice president of regulatory affairs, said the company will communicate with affected Buncombe households as the construction moves toward their areas.
The project likely won’t be as invasive as typical infrastructure improvements since Frontier already has telephone poles and lines in the area.
“We already have right of ways, and we already have poles and things of that nature, so we really do try to leverage our existing network anywhere that we possibly can. It does allow for a cheaper and a faster bill,” Ellis said.
Once the fiber is installed, it’ll be 100 megabits per seconds. That’s Buncombe County’s goal for internet connection, Love said, adding that it’s enough to use high-speed internet on multiple devices.
That’ll not only mean that Weldon and her husband can watch TV without interruption, but it will also allow her to work from home when she wants. She’ll be able to entertain and educate her granddaughter, schedule virtual doctor appointments and keep in touch with old friends through video chat.
“My husband and I are older. He’s been retired for a while, so it’s going to make a huge difference to us,” Weldon said.
“The ability to do things like order groceries and have them delivered, you know, things that we may depend on as we retire in place, it’s completely going to change some of our concerns.”