WNC Broadband Progress Stalls As State Budget Fight Continues

Aug 6, 2019

North Carolina’s state budget fight is entering its second month. While Republican leaders in the General Assembly and Democratic governor Roy Cooper remain far apart on ending it, the lack of a new state budget is holding up progress on an important issue for rural parts of the state. 

 

With so much focus on how the budget standoff will play out, it’s unlikely that any more bills will be passed this session. John Coggin is the Director of Advocacy at the NC Rural Center. 

 

“Yeah we don’t expect much more movement on that. Right now in the session all of the attention is on the budget and finding a compromise,” says Coggin. 

 

The nonprofit advocacy group runs a legislative tracker to follow the life of rural-centric bills. Broadband expansion remains one of its top concerns and Coggin says they’re happy with the progress that’s been made this year. 

“It’s happening everywhere on the executive and legislative level. It’s been a good year for broadband in North Carolina,” says Coggin. 

 

Coggin highlights three examples that will help bring more broadband access to rural areas. 

 

Nineteen rural counties - including Swain, Macon, Clay and Jackson – received $10 million in grants through the GREAT grant program. Governor Cooper signed an executive order that makes it easier for broadband fiber to be installed during road projects.  And a bill that passed in May allows electricity cooperatives to expand their networks to provide broadband.  That applies to Western North Carolina companies like Mountain Electric Cooperative and Haywood EMC. But funding to back all that up won’t be released until there’s a new state budget. 

 

Here’s Franklin Mayor Bob Scott:  

“I’m disappointed in the speed that they are working – they recognize the problem but it just seems like in many ways our legislature is so divided and they can’t agree that we have a problem and we need to band together and solve that problem,” says Scott. 

Representative Kevin Corbin is one of the sponsors of the Fiber Act, which is stuck in committee. It would allow municipalities to install broadband equipment and then lease it to providers.  He says he hopes it will be heard this week. 

 

 “It’s still out there and alive and we still hope we can get it through,” says Corbin. (The bill passed the State and Local government committee on Wednesday.)

 Scott and Corbin agree that it will take a combination of funding from all levels of government to bring broadband access to rural North Carolina. Here’s how Corbin explains it: 

 “It’s like chopping down a big tree you just have to keep chopping and chopping and chopping and we are slowly getting there,” says Corbin. 

Something else the budget standoff is keeping up in the air – when the General Assembly will conclude its long session this year.