Wilmington-based Cloudwyze was awarded an NC GREAT grant in August to help provide high-speed internet to rural Edgecombe County.
The grant from the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology program was one of 11 announced by Gov. Roy Cooper.
But that money never was distributed, and now 15 Republican state senators are urging Cooper to release the funds, which amount to $30 million that was supposed to be allocated for internet expansion in the neediest communities.
Cooper approved the grants for private broadband service providers to upgrade bandwidth data transmission in rural communities as part of the General Assembly’s third coronavirus relief bill.
But the Republican senators say they were told by the state Office of State Budget and Management that the funding no longer would be issued.
According to the state’s broadband availability index, more than 30 of North Carolina’s 100 counties lack reliable access to the internet. According to that index, Edgecombe County ranks 68th out of 100 counties on an availability scale of 0 to 95.
Lawmakers said broadband capacity is more crucial now amid the pandemic, which has increased the need for telehealth services and remote learning.
“The people in our rural areas desperately need broadband access,” state Sen. Jim Perry, R-Lenoir, said in a statement.
The $30 million was made available through direct CARES Act funding approved in March by Congress. The funds were earmarked to help states with COVID-19-related expenses. States must spend the money by the end of December. Dozens of providers were expected to receive an award from the GREAT program, the Republican lawmakers said.
Office of State Budget and Management spokeswoman Marcia Evans said the office pulled back the funds to avoid losing the federal funding.
“Gov. Cooper and our legislators strongly support using (Coronavirus Relief Fund) funds to expand access to broadband, but evolving federal guidelines have raised concerns that due to the federal government’s end-of-year spending deadline, the grants for broadband infrastructure would not be eligible and could risk North Carolina losing access to the funding,” Evans told The Center Square.
State lawmakers were informed of the potential risk as the federal rules continue to evolve, Evans said.
Perry said changes to federal guidelines do not affect the GREAT program funding.
“I hope the governor will work with us to help these people,” Perry said. “They are already expressing concerns that he is taking their funding for his pet projects. I hope they are wrong, and he chooses to help us.”
Edgecombe County, where Cooper garnered 65.96 percent of the vote in the Nov. 3 election, is the No. 1 economically distressed county in North Carolina.
According to FCC Form 477 data posted in September 2019, there are an estimated 9,001 households, or 42 percent of all Edgecombe County homes, that do not have internet access at speeds higher than 200kbps.
Additionally, data from the NC One Map American Community Survey reveals that 7,454 households, or 34.9 percent of all Edgecombe County homes, have no internet access at all.
That means a little more than one out of every three houses in the county has no internet access — and that count includes locations where connectivity is available, such as Tarboro, Princeville, Pinetops, Macclesfield and Rocky Mount.
The digital divide has never been more evident since the COVID-19 pandemic caused schools to move to virtual classes and local governments to virtual meetings.
At the start of the school year, Edgecombe County Public Schools Public Information Officer Susan Hoke said the district has about 5,800 students and an estimated 1,200 have no access to the internet, which puts those students at a disadvantage.
“The ability to have internet in all communities is a game-changer and helps our school system to provide a number of opportunities for students and their families,” schools Superintendent Valerie Bridges said.
North East Carolina Prep School obtained hot spots and Chrome Books for about 400 students who had no access at home.
At the time of the grant award, CloudWyze Business Development Manager Chris Utesch said, “The NC GREAT grant program helps internet service providers like CloudWyze to reduce the infrastructure costs of deploying internet networks in areas that have been previously underserved or unserved, due to a variety of factors, with high buildout costs being the most common reason.”
Utesch said the grant of $1,033,785 makes up 45 percent of the cost of the project. The company already has secured investment to cover the required match of $1,263,515.
Edgecombe County Manager Eric Evans said the county has not spent any money on the project and none currently is budgeted.
“We are however looking into how we and some of our community partners may be able to support the project financially so that more area may be covered than what’s provided for in the grant,” he said. “Though this project won’t completely bridge the gap, it certainly will go a long way.”