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Broadband expansion planapproved

North Carolina officials have been pushing to expand broadband internet access to rural and remote parts of the state which are underserved as part of the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grant program. Earlier this year another 33 grants were awarded to as many counties for expansion plans, but Surry County missed out.

County manager Chris Knopf advised the board of commissioners Monday that there is still a path forward for some of the residents in the western part of the county to see broadband internet access finally reach them.

He presented another option. “The North Carolina Department of Information Technology is providing to counties like ours an option to choose the next highest scoring Great Grant project application in our county. This is part of what they are calling the Completing Access to Broadband (CAB) program.”

CAB is being rolled out as the funding for the GREAT program was funded in part through the American Rescue Plan and Knopf advised those funds are now depleted.

He explained that the grant would go to Spectrum and that firm’s plan to expand broadband in the western parts of the county to just under 100 homes and businesses.

Knopf explained that Great Grant applications were given a score in which some weight was given to the willingness of the county or local government unit to match the grant. “Much like previous discussion, the county either does or does not have to provide a match. You did indicate in the last cycle that you would, and that amount would of course be negotiated,” Knopf said Monday.

From the Invest in Surry funds, the county set aside more than $300,000 for broadband project matches of which $80,000 went to match the Great Grant issued to Zitel. According to Knopf that means there is still more than $220,000 in that fund to match grants like the one to Spectrum.

“This is some of the best money we can spend, and I would support moving funds to GREAT Grants… it’s one of the best things we’ve done for families, kids, and economic development,” Chairman Eddie Harris said in a May discussion.

Commissioner Mark Marion agreed and said seeing broadband expansion in his area from a county funded initiative is gratifying. “All our hard work and money provided is finally coming to fruition.”

The decision was with the board Knopf said to, “Take advantage of this opportunity and then have the NCDIT award an additional grant to Spectrum, which was the next highest scoring project.”

He added, “You know the western part of the county is one of the most underserved areas so this project, to me, is very attractive.” Areas to be serviced by this expansion would be to the north of the State Line community in the area around H.G. Lewis Road and Mountain Top Road.

“Something I mentioned to the chair, apparently there is going to be a lot more money available in this CAB program in the future for broadband expansion in every county which will be coming out later this fall,” Knopf continued.

The new round of CAB grants will be awarding more funds, but Knopf advised that the required matching amount of the future rounds would be higher. No decision on matching was required of the board Monday evening but there were questions about the prospect of future funding options.

“I’m glad to know there are other opportunities coming,” Commissioner Larry Johnson said. “I like the idea that we choose who the company to put this in is and I would like, even though they are underserved in the western part of the county, I’d like to save our two hundred some thousand dollars for somebody that I feel would be better served in getting the job done.”

“In other words, I’d like for us to have an opportunity for us not to be sold only on we have to use Spectrum on this one.” Harris said if that was the sort of basis to make these judgements on, then this area may never get broadband.

Commissioner Van Tucker said, “This was a Spectrum application for this area, for this project. We don’t have any ability to say, ‘Hey, ya, we want to spend the money right here, but we want to do it through a public provider like Surry Telecom.’ We don’t have any control over that.”

Any further delay in getting broadband to this area was not an acceptable answer for Harris. “I know this area very well, it is very rural, it is very remote… and these people have been left out. These are the people in our county that been left out of the process and that’s what I have said since day one on broadband and the county’s commitment to furthering access.”

“It’s these folks’ turn at the table, so that’s why I’m going to support this,” Harris said and made a motion to move ahead with matching the CAB grant for broadband expansion in the western part of the county.

“This area is underserved and there is some poverty in this area,” Commissioner Bill Goins said, sharing his concern that providing the service was great, but only if people can afford it.

“That’s the one thing that I have an issue with Spectrum is they keep going up and up and up on price. I can afford it, but it’s expensive. Is there going to be some place to help keep costs down for these people?”

Knopf said the state had run an affordability program last year and he would investigate if it were still available.

The measure passed the board in a 4-1 vote with Commissioner Johnson the lone dissenting vote although he did seek to clarify, “I want them to have broadband, I just have a concern about the contractor and getting the most bang for our buck.”

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