ASHEVILLE – An ongoing, multifaceted effort to get faster internet to more people in Western North Carolina is paying off from at least one funding angle in Buncombe, though some are still concerned about how much internet costs.
The most populous county in WNC will receive $3.3 million in North Carolina state funding to expand internet connectivity to nearly 1,000 people who do not have service or who need better service.
The money will go to service provider Frontier Communications and benefit many in the northern Buncombe area, surrounding Weaverville. Frontier’s application for this project included more than 1,000 addresses where the company could install high-speed internet.
That list is available with the online version of this article.
Projects with this type of funding from the state is typically two years from the effective date of the grant agreement, according to the North Carolina Department of Information Technology
“I am proud that our Buncombe Commissioners have prioritized high speed fiber broadband,” Commissioner Terri Wells said in a statement.
Wells has been a staunch advocate for internet expansion, especially in rural areas. In late 2021 that advocacy paid off with internet expansion in her home area of Leicester, which previously had little to no internet access whatsoever.
The $3.3 million for Buncombe is just a portion of a total $206 million announced by Gov. Roy Cooper Aug. 31, money from the ongoing Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology grants program, which caps the amount of annual internet expansion funding at $4 million, according to WNC Broadband, a organization dedicated to boosting internet accessibility in the mountains.
Cooper said the new round of grants would affect nearly 85,000 households and more than 2,400 businesses in 69 of N.C.’s 100 counties.
“With this NC GREAT grant announcement, we continue to connect our residents to this 21st century resource,” Wells said. “I am excited for the many residents in North Buncombe who will soon have high-speed fiber internet from Frontier, and I hope we will receive word of an additional project this fall to benefit residents in other areas of the county. We are dedicated to connecting Buncombe, and we will continue to work with our state partners to leverage funding.”
More:Survey could help lock federal dollars for Buncombe broadband expansion
Other counties surrounding Buncombe that will receive GREAT grant money from this latest round of funding include Henderson, Rutherford, Haywood, McDowell and Yancey.
Transylvania and Madison counties received money to expand internet services as well, part of a different round of $30 million in GREAT grant funding announced Aug. 1.
“Thanks to this significant GREAT grant award funding, many more North Carolina families and small business owners will have the tools they need to succeed in today’s digital world,” Cooper said in a news release announcing the latest round of grants.
More:‘Tired of waiting’: Millions of dollars in NC budget heading to Buncombe for broadband
Affordability a big issue
But while expanding high speed internet access in terms of infrastructure may be part of the solution, some say it’s not the whole picture.
Local business and community leaders spoke about ongoing high-speed internet needs at WNC Broadband’s leadership summit in April.
Those leaders included Land of Sky Regional Council Director Nathan Ramsey, regional planner Sara Nichols Southwestern Commission Executive Director Russ Harris.
“Early on, Land of Sky Regional Council had identified that Western North Carolina had two distinct issues in terms of addressing digital inclusion; infrastructure and affordability,” a summary of Ramsey, Nichols and Harris’ talk on WNC Broadband’s website stated.
“Per capita, affordability affected more people’s ability to connect to their services that the rural issues did,” Nichols said at the summit.
Some WNC entities are addressing this in various ways
Local and state governments have responded to the affordability accordingly. Buncombe noted in a news release about the $3.3 million that any company participating in the GREAT grants program must be participating in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides eligible low-income households a $30 per month discount on high-speed internet service or provides access to a comparable low-cost program.
Land of Sky at its April summit outlined three primary goals moving forward:
- Working toward connecting unserved areas.
- Building regional capacity by working together and cooperating with local governments, municipalities, ISPs, colleges and universities and countless other interest groups.
- Closing the digital divide by continuing to promote digital inclusion and literacy for underserved communities.
Dogwood Health Trust recently gave $2 million to N.C. State’s Institute of Emerging Technologies to oversee the creation of digital inclusion plans in many WNC counties.
Additionally, Buncombe County is dedicating American Rescue Plan Act money toward local internet expansion to reach even more households.
Details on that effort are forthcoming.
Any WNC residents having trouble accessing broadband can report issues at ncbroadband.gov/north-carolina-broadband-survey.
Andrew Jones is an investigative reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter, 828-226-6203 or [email protected] Please help support this type of journalism with asubscription to the Citizen Times.