Local counties receive millions in GREAT Grants

Published 5:32 pm Friday, September 23, 2022

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RALEIGH – Governor Roy Cooper announced recently that nearly 85,000 households and more than 2,400 businesses in 69 counties are set to receive access to high-speed internet thanks to more than $206 million of Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grants.

Included in the latest round of grants is funding for three Roanoke-Chowan area counties: $3.68 million for Gates, $2.70 million for Northampton, and $1.35 million for Hertford.

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.

Roanoke Connect, an affiliate of Roanoke Electric Cooperative, submitted applications for GREAT Grants in Bertie, Gates and Hertford counties but was not awarded any funding.

Nate Denny, Deputy Secretary of Broadband and Digital Equity for the state, said the GREAT Grant program is a highly competitive process.

“The program, as created by statute by the General Assembly, is where internet providers come to us with proposals to cover certain areas,” Denny told the R-C News-Herald in a telephone interview last week. “We score those proposals on 14 different criteria. The highest scoring application in any given county wins.”

Among the scoring criteria is if an applicant can gain matching funds from the county they wish to represent. In their formal presentations earlier this year to the boards of commissioners in Bertie, Gates, and Hertford, Roanoke Connect officials received respective commitments of $250,000, $500,000, and $500,000. However, that commitment, which came from each county’s share of federal American Rescue Plan funding, was contingent only if Roanoke Connect was awarded the GREAT Grant.

“An applicant gets a bonus point if the county bought in to their proposal, and a county can partner with one or more applicants,” Denny explained. That partnership, however, doesn’t alone determine the final choice. It’s just one of the criteria used in scoring the application.”

He noted that Bertie, Gates, and Hertford counties had a preferred applicant – Roanoke Connect.

“Roanoke Connect is an excellent provider that does a lot to connect a rural, hard-to-serve part of the state that a lot of the bigger companies have not addressed to this point,” Denny said. “But even if a county decided that Roanoke Connect was their partner with the GREAT Grant program, that doesn’t mean that’s who gets awarded the grant.”

He dispelled a rumor that rural counties are at a disadvantage due to being sparsely populated, but the cost-per-household criteria – part of the 14 steps used to score point on a grant application – would be higher in a less populated area.

Denny further explained how the matching funds work.

“When we notify a grantee, an internet provider, that they’ve won a grant, we say ‘look, you’ve scored this amount [on their application], so that gives you a match of this percentage’. The rest they have to cover,” he noted.

“For instance, in Bertie County we awarded a grant to Spectrum for $1.8 million,” Denny continued. “Spectrum’s required match is roughly $777,000. That’s their obligation. If a provider turns back to the county and says that’s the county’s obligation, then that’s not correct. In the county’s case, they can say they want to chip in or not chip in. If an internet provider accepts a grant from our program, then it’s their responsibility to cover the match regardless of what the county does. If the provider doesn’t provide the required match then they do not receive the grant.”

The R-C News-Herald was supplied with a spreadsheet showing the matching funds the grantees – along with any third-party funders – must provide as it pertains to each local county. In Bertie, the match is $777,044.10. For Gates County, Connect Holding II is required to provide $1,577,460 and $581,394.30 in Hertford County. In Northampton County, Zitel LLC has to provide a match of $1,158,585.12.

At the close of the GREAT Grant program, Denny said there would be additional “bites of the apple” available (more rounds of funding).

“We have another program that will launch once the GREAT Grant program is over,” Denny stated. “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.”

As part of the GREAT Grant eligibility requirements, all internet service provider applicants must be participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides eligible low-income households a $30 per month discount on high-speed internet service or provide access to a comparable low-cost program.

NCDIT received 305 applications for this round of GREAT grants, and internet service providers proposed to serve more than 487,000 North Carolina homes and businesses. Applications were scored based on the number of households and businesses they propose to serve, the average cost to serve those locations, and the speeds offered.

Applicants must agree to provide high-speed service, defined as a minimum of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload, scalable to 100 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload on or before December 31, 2026. All awards are contingent on final executed grant agreements with broadband provider partners.

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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