When the General Assembly reconvenes next week, broadband promises to be a hot topic.

One of lawmakers’ first order of business, according to Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, will be to pass legislation handling money in the rural broadband grant program. In December, legislative leaders and Gov. Roy Cooper agreed to shuffle around $30 million in COVID-19 relief funds that lawmakers earmarked for rural broadband.

Due to questions over whether the federal government required the money to be spent by the close of 2020, Cooper shifted the $30 million to other, more immediately needed expenses that qualified for pandemic relief. When lawmakers return to session, it will be their turn to vote to shift into rural broadband the $30 million the state saved by using the federal relief money.

The money will be doled out through the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT, program. The legislature created the program in 2018 to offer grants to aid broadband access in rural parts of North Carolina, connecting an estimated 22,000 homes so far.

Even though rural broadband will get a healthy boost of money in 2021, don’t be surprised if state leaders push for more. Cooper still wants to borrow $250 million, in part to increase high-speed internet access across the state, and the pandemic has softened fiscally conservative stances on the issue.

“Broadband expansion is something we definitely have to start to get a hold on,” freshman Rep. Ray Pickett, R-Blowing Rock, told the Watauga Democrat. We’re going to have to get this broadband into the rural areas, because there’s many people that would love to have it in order to do their job. Maybe they would love to live somewhere like here, but they can’t because we don’t have the broadband.”

WRAL noted that private providers have stepped up to help during the pandemic. For example, Eastern Carolina Broadband expanded broadband in Jones County via fixed wireless, a method of beaming a signal from a cell tower to nearby facilities. The outlet reported that private and government partners distributed more than 84,000 hot spots around the state so that teachers and students could better connect with each other for virtual learning from home. 

Becki Gray, John Locke Foundation senior vice president, recently called on lawmakers to work toward expanded access to reliable broadband, but to do so in a responsible manner. That includes removing any unnecessary red tape, streamlining permitting, minimizing local fees, and allowing lease agreements for pole attachments. 

She also called on the legislature to “put guardrails” on the GREAT program to ensure it focuses on unserved areas and doesn’t become an ongoing funding stream for projects. In addition, Gray said lawmakers should resist calls to eliminate the Level Playing Field Act, which prevents cities from building their own broadband networks and competing with private providers. As critics like the Taxpayers Protection Alliance point out, these government projects often fail and saddle local residents with debt, paid back by increased fees or taxes. 

The legislature should “find solutions through open markets and competition, rather than government takeover,” Gray said.