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Broadband seen as key to the future

Monday the Surry County Board of County Commissioners discussed how to continue improving broadband internet access to the remainder of the county. There are still parts of the county including areas in Beulah, Mountain Park, State Road, and Shoals that have been identified as still in need of greater access.

Residents of rural parts of the state have been benefiting from the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Program that funds deployment of broadband within underserved of unserved areas of rural or economically distressed counties.

The 2019 program became a recurring state-funded grant program and the North Carolina General Assembly set aside $350 million from the American Rescue Plan Act for GREAT Grants in 2021 to fund it.

GREAT Grants has already helped take high-speed internet to thousands of North Carolinians, businesses and farms in the most rural and remote areas of the state where companies may find it cost prohibitive to take time to lay broadband to places where few live or are remote and hard to reach.

For these residents, it could be some time before the last miles of cable can be laid to offer broadband internet access. To fight that, last year the county commissioners approved a broadband fund of $309,627 as a potential financial match for any successful GREAT Grant application.

Surry County had four to apply — Brightspeed, Charter Communications, Surry Communications, and Zitel. Surry County Manager Chris Knopf advised the board at their Sept. 6 meeting that Zitel had been awarded a grant for $372,175.50 that would require a county match of $159,503.78 what was paid out from Invest in Surry’s broadband line item.

When GREAT Grants were issued in rural counties for, as Knopf called it last year, a “final miles” broadband expansion project. The commissioners were told that an application that carried with it the promise of a percentage of local match would make the application more appealing to the committee making the decision.

Now the N.C. Department of Information Technology recently announced it has an additional $80 million that will be awarded under this program. They will review again applications that were previously unsuccessful to potentially award one or more of those, including Brightspeed, Charter Communications, and Surry Communications.

Denise Brown of the county finance office wrote that applications are weighted and applicants receive points for county partnerships so the commissioners must decide if they want to provide a financial match to any additional GREAT Grant application that may be approved by the state.

Knopf on Monday night advised, “We are following up to see if the board has any appetite for matches if there are any requests, but I am not recommending one way or the other.”

Getting the last parts of the country set up for fiber internet has been a goal for county leaders as it will help residents in a variety of ways. “As far as getting fiber internet to rural areas and places that don’t have it, or it would be years and years (before they do), it’s one of the best things we’ve done for families, kids, and economic development,” Chairman Eddie Harris said.

There was no action needed by the board at that time, just an understanding that the fund has been depleted and if one of those providers applies for and is approved for a GREAT Grant, the funds would need to be made available for the local match.

“This is some of the best money we can spend, and I would support moving funds to GREAT Grants,” Harris told his colleagues on the board.

Funds from Invest in Surry were also granted to Surry Communications in July to deploy broadband into places it was not reaching, but they could not reach everyone. That is why the state set up the GREAT program in the first place, to find the gaps in broadband and provide financial incentives to internet providers of any size to come in and bridge those gaps thereby removing the lack of access as an impediment to high-speed internet.

Educators, economists, and politicians agree that access to broadband internet is an essential tool for school aged children.“Access to high-speed internet is crucial in today’s economy. Not only does it connect business to each other and customers, it allows our small businesses to compete on a national level. It also opens Surry County as a place to live and work from home if a person so desires,” the Surry Economic Development Partnership said.



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