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‘Connect’ing us all to a better tomorrow

The COVID-19 economic relief bill, worth $900 billion, approved Dec. 21 by Congress and the Senate will provide another infusion of cash to those across our great nation who are still suffering from the financial fallout associated with an ongoing pandemic…one that only worsens with each passing day.

This money is a shot in the arm, figuratively, that most all Americans desperately need to survive as this deadly virus enters a second year.

Among the items in the bill is $7 billion for broadband activities, including $635 million more for the USDA’s ReConnect program. That program furnishes loans and grants to provide funds for the costs of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.

As living in a rural area during a pandemic that has sent mom and dad home to work – that is if they still have jobs – and children engaged in remote learning has shown us over the past 10 months, accessibility to high-speed broadband Internet is desperately needed in rural areas. Many of our local citizens do not have any Internet service at all. Those that do put immense strain on a system that even on a good day is slow to respond.

Roanoke Electric Cooperative (REC) has been working on a plan for several years to bring high-speed broadband Internet to its membership, homeowners and businesses alike. They are extremely close to completing a 200-mile loop of fiber optics that will tie all of its substations together. That technology affords REC the opportunity to more precisely manage its entire electrical grid all at once.

From that project an idea was born and slowly nurtured for REC to become an Internet Service Provider (aka “Roanoke Connect”). To tackle such a monumental task in a sparsely populated area, REC needed grants to get the ball rolling on the project. To date, they’ve been awarded roughly $4 million. However, it costs approximately $30,000 to $40,000 per mile to lay fiber lines, meaning that $4 million is already buried in the local soil and there are hundreds of miles still to go.

We need U.S. Congressman G.K. Butterfield to get to work now on ensuring that the Roanoke Connect program is funded at the highest level possible through this latest COVID-19 relief package. And if it needs prompting at the state level, we encourage NC House Representatives Howard Hunter III, Michael Wray, and Ed Goodwin along with NC Senators Bob Steinburg and Ernestine Bazemore to become our biggest cheerleaders. Please put your partisan politics aside, roll up your sleeves and get to work, now!!

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t to blame for the lack of quality and affordable Internet service in rural areas like ours. We’ve suffered that fate for years, which has slowed our economic growth.

But instead of crying over spilled milk, REC put their minds to work on a plan that upon completion will not only better connect us to the outside world, it also makes us competitive from an economic development standpoint.

We applaud and support their plan and encourage our elected representatives to do the same.

The Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald

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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