Fingers (and toes) remain crossed

Published 4:52 pm Tuesday, September 13, 2022

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It wasn’t the outcome I had hoped for, but the sun will rise tomorrow and with it comes new opportunities.

Two weeks have passed since Governor Roy Cooper announced the winners of Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grants in 69 counties across the state. Included in that announcement was $3.68 million for Gates County, $2.70 million for Northampton County, and $1.35 million for Hertford County.

Bertie County ($1.81 million) was listed in the first round of funding that was announced on July 18.

The most recent grants were awarded to Connect Holding II (Brightspeed / Lumen Technologies) in Gates and Hertford counties while Zitel LLC gained the grant to serve Northampton County.

Spectrum Southeast LLC was awarded the grant for Bertie County.

I had my fingers and toes crossed that Roanoke Connect, an affiliate of Roanoke Electric Cooperative, would gain some of that grant funding. They submitted applications for GREAT grants in our local counties but were not awarded any funding.

At county commissioner meetings this newspaper covers in all four R-C area counties, Roanoke Connect had, earlier this spring and summer, presented what I felt was a solid plan to bring high-speed broadband to the unserved and underserved areas of where we live and do business. Some of that work is finished; some was just getting underway, and some was in the planning stages.

What Roanoke Connect needed was funding. It costs $40,000 per mile to lay fiber optic cable. The GREAT grants coupled with financial commitments made by the local commissioners ($500,000 each from Gates and Hertford; $250,000 from Bertie) and millions of their own dollars would move the Roanoke Connect projects along. They promised, and I strongly believe they would have delivered, to have broadband “to the final mile.”

While I also believe that the GREAT grant recipients here in our little corner of the world will use their funding wisely, I question their commitment to ensure the “final miles” are covered. It’s easy to pick the low hanging fruit (aka densely populated areas), but those that live here know how homes are spaced far apart in extremely rural areas. I know of numerous roads in our four counties where a person might ride a mile or more before spotting a residence.

What the future holds as for those companies who gained GREAT grants for our local counties is yet to be seen. I wonder just how “deep” into our rural areas will they invest? Just because a home is off the beaten path doesn’t mean it isn’t occupied by adults and children who need to be connected to the world wide web. They deserve have that access just as much as a household in a densely populated area.

The good news is that there are more “bites of the apple” to come. That’s the term used by Nate Denny, Deputy Secretary of Broadband and Digital Equity for the state, when he and I spoke on the phone two weeks ago.

“We have another program that will launch once the GREAT Grant program is over,” Denny told me. “The Completing Access to Broadband (CAB) program. It’s 400 million dollars. We’re going to partner directly with counties to identify any unserved and/or underserved areas and see who can cover them. We will say to each county that there were GREAT Grant applicants that didn’t earn a grant. We’ll ask them if they want to take that CAB allotment to their county and work with one of those providers.”

Then there’s last week’s announcement of a billion dollar increase in USDA’s ReConnect Program. That funding is through the historic bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

On Sept. 6, USDA began accepting applications for loans, with available funds of $150 million, grants with available funds of $700 million, and combination loan/grant awards using $300 million under the ReConnect Program.

These funds were added to a $65 billion investment to expand affordable, high-speed internet to all communities across the United States.

The application deadline is Nov. 2.

“That’s why high-speed internet is an important part of USDA Rural Development’s work with rural communities. Reliable high-speed internet opens the world’s marketplace to rural business owners. It enables them to expand their businesses and give more jobs and opportunities to people in their own community,” stated U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Hopefully, Roanoke Connect will be able to tap into these and other opportunities. Access to high speed broadband is critical only to individuals and households, but to the future economic development of our area. Companies seeking to build or expand look not only at an area’s typical infrastructure (water, sewer, power grid, roads, schools, available workforce), but internet connectivity as well.

And while you may point out that we have broadband internet locally, it’s spotty at best and the upload/download speeds are slightly better than the old dial-up method.

Case in point….I use a well-known internet provider at my home. But the speeds are laughable. They promise “up to 10 Megabits per second (Mbps)” but I’m lucky to reach 1 Mbps. And then there are times when the service is completely offline, sometimes for several days at the time.

In comparison, when our family traveled to the Outer Banks earlier this summer for our annual vacation, the cottage we rented had 5G service. In other words, it was fast. My wife wondered out loud of how long it would take to send / receive a text message once we returned back home.

For those of you fortunate enough to be in an area where GREAT grant funding will be applied, you can look forward to high-speed service, defined as a minimum of 100 Mbps per second download and 20 Mbps upload, scalable to 100 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload. And all that is required to be in place by Dec. 31, 2026.

My fingers and toes are still crossed that those of us who live in sparsely populated areas will enjoy a bite of the apple at some point within these funding programs.

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7207.

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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