Legislature left in dark after rural broadband funding redirected

Gov. Roy Cooper briefs media from the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. Photo via N.C. Dept. of Public Safety

RALEIGH — State legislators say Gov. Roy Cooper took more than $30 million appropriated to support rural broadband to use for other purposes — and didn’t notify them of the decision.

A letter dated Nov. 20 was sent to Gov. Cooper asking for more information regarding the funding of the Growing Rural Economies through Access to Technology (GREAT) rural broadband grant program.

A notice published on the Broadband Infrastructure Office says, “The 2020 Special Supplementary Round of the GREAT Grant Program was to be funded using an appropriation from the CARES Act. Unfortunately, it has been determined that these projects are not eligible for CARES Act funding under the current U.S. Department of Treasury guidelines.”

The notice continues, saying, “Expansion of broadband infrastructure in underserved communities is critical and remains a top priority for Gov. Roy Cooper and the N.C. Department of Information Technology. The state is exploring all possible sources to fund qualifying projects in this special supplementary round. The Broadband Infrastructure Office has completed the GREAT Grant application review process, scoring and ranking each application. The applications will remain active and will be considered if and when funding becomes available.”

A Sept. 14 press release from N.C. DIT makes no mention of the funds being contingent on additional approval needed to disburse the funds.

“Internet service providers and electric membership cooperatives can now apply for $32 million in pandemic relief grant funding to help bring high-speed internet access to rural North Carolina,” part of the statement reads. “Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 1105 into law, allocating more than $32 million for rural broadband expansion from the Coronavirus Relief Fund created by the CARES Act. The Broadband Infrastructure Office will review applications and assign the funding through the GREAT Grant program.”

State Sen. Jim Perry (R-Lenoir) said, “The people in our rural areas desperately need broadband access. Nothing has changed about the guidelines surrounding this funding, so it is troubling for this issue to come up now. I hope the governor will work with us to help these people. 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.”

Cooper’s office announced on Friday what it called the “N.C. Education Corps” to help fund positions for college students and recent college graduates to provide wraparound services in N.C. public schools. The timing of the rural broadband funds reversal has been linked to the new initiative between the State Board of Education, the governor’s office, local school systems and the N.C. Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service.

“In tough times, North Carolinians pull together to help each other out and this pandemic is no different,” Cooper said. “The N.C. Education Corps gives people a wonderful opportunity to help in local public schools at a time when students and educators really need it.”

Nineteen school systems have signed up thus far to participate. The members hired will work from January through June. Compensation will be provided by local school systems, which can utilize funding provided to them from North Carolina’s share of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, a part of the CARES Act.

The timing of both announcements could appear to suggest the GREAT Grant funds were used to instead launch the N.C. Education Corps.

According to the letter sent by the state senators, 70 broadband providers submitted grant applications and dozens expected awards to be announced.

“Gov. Cooper’s elimination of broadband funding leaves children and seniors in the lurch. Many students are still receiving virtual instruction, and seniors rely heavily on telehealth. Both suffer without expanded broadband,” the legislators’ letter continues.

A Pew Charitable Trust report said that two states, Tennessee and Vermont, each have allocated CARES Act funding for rural broadband infrastructure. Tennessee allocated $61 million to support new infrastructure deployment, and Vermont dedicated $17.4 million to a COVID-Response Accelerated Broadband Connectivity Program.

The Pew report also said that states’ efforts using federal resources have focused on four specific needs: increasing access to online learning for K-12 and postsecondary students, supporting telehealth services, deploying more public Wi-Fi access points, and investing in residential broadband infrastructure, especially in rural and underserved areas.