N.C. House Republicans have filed an ambitious bill that will allocate three quarters of a billion federal dollars toward broadband.
The GREAT Broadband Expansion Act, or House Bill 947, aims to connect all 100 counties with high-speed internet from this money. It leverages American Rescue Plan dollars — taxpayer money allocated by the federal government — for use in growing broadband. Congress sent hundreds of billions of dollars to states for COVID-19 relief under that plan.
“This is truly an unprecedented investment and the most comprehensive approach yet in our efforts to expand broadband in North Carolina,” Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said in a news release. “We have made incredible strides in improving broadband connectivity throughout the state. This bill will build on those successes and help ensure all North Carolinians have access to reliable internet service.”
The bill shuffles $340 million in those federal taxpayer dollars for the state’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) program. It also allocated $400 million to the recently established Completing Access to Broadband (CAB) program. Every county will be eligible to receive grants to help close the digital divide.
HB 947 would also provide $12 million in grants for satellite and fixed wireless services. Consumers can apply for reimbursement for the cost of installing hardware to receive internet signals through these types of services.
“Innovative technology, like SpaceX and its Starlink satellite-based internet service, have the opportunity to expand broadband to new areas in our state,” Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, another co-sponsor, said in the release. “This bill will help capitalize on these new satellite-based services and provide a new tool in our efforts to expand internet connectivity to more North Carolinians.”
The legislation also incentivizes cities and counties to use some of their federal allocation to partner with the state to expand broadband infrastructure.
Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, told Carolina Journal that, since those federal taxpayer dollars are already allocated to the state via the American Rescue Plan, this would appear to be a good use of it.
“Broadband is clearly a need in those unserved areas,” he said.
Sanders said he hopes that lawmakers will limit these funds to one-time uses rather than try to create new long-term funding programs.
“The federal government is sending this money, so if we’re going to use it for broadband, let’s use it for projects and not create an ongoing state responsibility,” he said.
As filed, H.B. 947 doesn’t create new programs, but rather funds existing ones, Sanders notes. He said the bill also requires providers to front a significant portion of broadband project costs and has clawbacks that require service to be maintained over a long duration.
Johnny Kampis is a freelance writer for Carolina Journal.