Roanoke Connect receives GREAT Grant

Published 8:54 am Wednesday, May 15, 2019


In a word (which doubles in this case as an acronym – Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology), that sums up exactly how Roanoke Electric Cooperative CEO Curtis Wynn feels about nearly $2 million in state grants that will help drive the effort to bring better internet access within the co-op’s territory.

Last week, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced that 21 applicants in 19 counties will receive a total of $9,855,026 in GREAT Grant funding to bring high-speed internet access to 9,800 households and more than 590 businesses, agricultural operations, and community institutions like libraries, schools and hospitals.

Of the 14 companies receiving grant funding, 11 are North Carolina-based small businesses, telephone cooperatives and an electric membership cooperative (Roanoke Electric).

REC’s Roanoke Connect program will receive a total of $1,867,547. By county, the grants were $327,010 for Gates; $376,892 for Hertford; $641,978 for Bertie; and $521,667 for Northampton.

Projected as a $4 million fiber optic network, Roanoke Connect will serve a dual purpose – providing its member-owners with broadband internet service and for REC’s internal operational needs. The latter will allow its substations to communicate with one another, allowing REC to better predict and manage outages, protect substations and metering equipment from vandalism and theft, and improve response times to power outages.

“Our goal has always been to extend advanced services to our member-owners,” Wynn told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. “The funds received from the GREAT Grant, along with matching funds from Roanoke, allow us to expand the fiber backbone and laterals further than originally budgeted. In turn, we are able to reach more of our member-owners with a high performance, fiber based backbone that enhances their ability to utilize Roanoke Electric applications, and access the Internet for work, school and entertainment.”

Wynn said more than 300 member-owners currently subscribe to Roanoke Connect services.

“As we move to accelerate our deployment, we expect almost 1,300 to be online by the end of 2019,” he noted.  “We also have more than 700 member-owners currently subscribed to the Internet based SmartGrid services with that number expected to surpass 2,000 by year-end.”

SmartGrid technology used by REC includes digital thermostats for HVAC systems and water heater control devices.

As Roanoke Connect moves forward, Wynn said it is currently averaging 40 new internet connections per month. As of this month, 39 percent of REC member-owners in Bertie County are online with Roanoke Connect; 18 percent in Halifax County; 16 percent in Gates County; and 14 percent each in Hertford and Northampton counties. Wynn expects those percentages to grow.

“We are now moving into an accelerated period of construction and are projecting our installations will increase to about 110 per month,” he said. “The expected completion date of this project is within the next three to four years. The GREAT funds we are receiving will not accelerate that pace; rather the funds will allow Roanoke to ‘future proof’ the project by extending additional fiber to some of our more remote locations.

“The Roanoke Connect project’s primary objective to improve our ability to keep our member-owners electric service extremely reliable and to keep their electricity costs as affordable as possible,” Wynn added. “We are leveraging these investments by also providing high-speed Internet service that will improve the lives of our members and residents in the region in a number of ways: more jobs, better healthcare for all, and better education for our children.”

Gov. Cooper agreed.

“Access to reliable, high-speed internet service is critical for businesses to grow, students to learn, and communities to thrive,” Cooper stressed “These grants will help connect thousands of homes and businesses with opportunities across the state and around the world.”

GREAT Grants, offered through the NC Department of Information Technology and its Broadband Infrastructure Office, provides matching funds to internet service providers and electric membership cooperatives that compete for funding to lower financial barriers that prevent high speed internet service expansion in Tier 1 counties.

Eric Boyette, State CIO and Secretary of the Department of Information Technology said, “Too many communities across the state lack broadband speeds that are critical to doing homework, applying for a job, or seeing a doctor without leaving home. Rural parts of the state are the most dramatically affected by this digital divide. The GREAT Grant program is one way our state is tackling this problem.”

To increase internet access across North Carolina, Cooper recently launched a new Governor’s Task Force on Connecting North Carolina. His latest proposed budget invests $35 million for efforts to expand access to broadband internet service, including an additional $30 million for more GREAT grants plus $5 million to close the homework gap for students across the state without home internet access.

The GREAT Grant Program was established by Session Law 2018-5. Eligible areas are census blocks or portions of census blocks in Tier One counties that lack access to a service providing a minimum of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Megabit per second upload speeds. The state classifies the 40 most economically distressed counties in the state as Tier One counties.

Applicants are scored based on the number of households, businesses and agricultural operations they propose to serve, the average cost to serve those households and the speeds offered. Applicants receive higher awards for agreeing to provide higher speed service, defined as a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.

“In today’s society, broadband is a vital service, as basic as access to a phone, electricity or water,” said NC Senate Appropriations/Base Budget Committee co-chairman Sen. Harry Brown (R-Onslow). “Broadband provides economic opportunities for individuals and small businesses, gives folks better access to healthcare via telemedicine, and expands educational opportunities for our children. These grants provided by the GREAT program will ensure that North Carolinians in rural areas receive the same opportunities as those in our cities.”

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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