Jackson sets aside ARPA funds for internet service

“There is a definite and negative impact to lack of broadband in our community.”

That is according to Jackson County Director of Economic Development, Tiffany Henry. Lack of access to reliable, sustainable internet connection is a problem that became even more starkly obvious during the Coronavirus Pandemic when people were expected to learn and work from home. 

This is why Henry and county staff asked the Jackson County Commission last week to allocate up to $600,000 of ARPA funds as  matching funds for GREAT grants that provide broadband opportunities in North Carolina. Jackson County received over $8.5 million in ARPA funds . 

The GREAT Grant program is intended to facilitate economic development through the deployment of broadband to unserved areas across North Carolina. These are highly competitive grants awarded to Internet Service Providers who must then participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program or provide broad-based affordability to low-income consumers. 

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“That basically means they will have to offer lower rates to lower-income people,” said County Manager Don Adams. “Which is extremely important, especially when you start talking about students, and low-income housing, the people who really need access in their daily lives, who may not afford a standard rate.”

The project targets areas with internet speeds lower than 25 megabit download and 3 megabit upload. Single grant awards cannot exceed $4 million, and awards for projects in any one county cannot exceed $8 million. 

Jackson County is eligible for GREAT grant funds because it is a tier 2 county. 

As part of the grant application process, internet service must list the number of households they’re going to serve, the number of businesses they’re going to serve, map and description of project area, base speed to all locations, total project cost, cost per passing, proof of financial solvency, proposed municipality partnership, qualifications, assessment of current broadband access and description of proposed services. The county may enter into proposed agreements with more than one internet service provider. 

“They could award a couple grant awards, they just won’t be serving in the same area. The only restrictions we have is it can’t be more than $8 million within the county,” said Adams. “And that’s not county expenses, that’s $8 million from the state.”  

Grants applications are scored on a point basis. Applications will receive one additional point if the county provides a financial match. Two additional points will be provided if the county’s financial match consists entirely of ARPA funds intended for broadband infrastructure. 

“The state has greatly incentivized for counties to participate with ARPA funds,” said Adams. 

If a county agrees to pay all matching funds with ARPA money, county and internet service money will only have to make up 15% of project costs; 7.5% from the county and 7.5% from the internet service. If the county were to pay matching funds only partially from ARPA funds, county and provides ISP money would have to make up 25% of total project costs. 

The maximum amount that can be requested from Jackson County for matching would be $600,000, 7.5% of the $8 million total that can be awarded to Jackson County. 

“The reality is we have an opportunity to partner with these providers at a $600,000 match level that could get $8 million worth of direct service to our citizens in Jackson County in broadband,” said Adams. 

The request before the board was to allow the commission chairman and/or the county manager to sign off on pledging up to $600,000 worth of APRA funds as matching funds for the GREAT grant applications in order to direct $8 million worth of funding towards broadband access in Jackson County. 

“We believe that we’ve got $8 million worth of interest in applications if we’re willing to do this,” said Adams. 

The board approved allocating the money toward the GREAT grant program unanimously. Applications are due April 4. 

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