By Jim Buchanan

 

The possibility of broadband service to Jackson County residents who have lacked access has taken a major step forward with the announcement of Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grants from the Federal Communications Commission.

“The federal grants coming to North Carolina amount to a total of $166 million. $45 million is going to Haywood and west, said State Sen. Kevin Corbin, R-Macon, who represents Jackson County.

A total of 35,000 homes and business locations will have access to broadband in the seven westernmost counties.

To serve Jackson County, Charter Communications, under CCO Holdings, LLC, was awarded $16,994,261 for 11,128 locations. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. received a grant of $15,694.80 for service to 32 locations.

The grants were announced after firms were allowed to bid on Census blocks containing residents with no broadband service.

Phase II, expected to roll out in fall, will focus on customers with some, but limited, internet connectivity.

The latest initiative is part of a multi-layer effort to provide high-speed internet, considered more critical than ever as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced businesses and students to rely on remote access more heavily.

Four years ago, while serving in the N.C. House, then-Rep. Corbin co-authored the FIBER Act, which would have allowed cities and counties to invest in internet infrastructure. The measure did not advance but contributed to formation of the GREAT Grant program, the state’s push to expand internet access.

Corbin plans to reintroduce the FIBER Act in coming months.

The RDOF bid process is referred to as a “reverse bid,” with a dollar figure given to bidders who then bid by saying how many customers they can hook up for the money.

In a press release, Charter said it expects to invest around $5 billion in its buildout initiative nationwide, and expects to hire more than 2,000 employees and contractors to support RDOF Phase I and future expansion initiatives.

It said, “The successful and timely execution of (the) initiative is dependent on a variety of external factors, including the utility pole permitting and ‘make-ready’ processes. With fewer homes and businesses in these areas, broadband providers need to access multiple poles for every new home served, as opposed to multiple homes per pole in higher-density settings. As a result, pole applications, pole replacement rules and their affiliated issue resolution processes are all factors that can have a significant impact on the length of time it takes to build into these rural areas.”

Russ Harris, director of Community and Economic Development for the Southwestern Commission, said “It’s early. Companies have just submitted technical reports that will be vetted by the FCC and awards could be adjusted.

“There’s still a lot to be worked out. These projects are not under contract yet. It’s hopeful, we’re very encouraged and excited, but we’re not stopping what we’re doing to try to get other funding to expand broadband.”

Corbin said he and other Western N.C. legislators will be working closely with the State IT Department and the providers to make sure the work gets done in a timely manner.

“The grants allow up to six years for the customers to be hooked up,” Corbin said. “But that is too long.”

Corbin said he believes “most folks in the region are going to be pretty happy” with the initiative and that he and WNC state Reps. Mike Clampitt and Mark Pless will “be committed to make sure there’s cooperation” between utilities and stakeholders on the initiative.

“Taking the 30,000 foot view, we’ll continue to do our part,” Corbin said, both on RDOFF and broadband expansion in general.