RALEIGH — The General Assembly may allocate hundreds of millions in federal relief toward closing the digital divide this session, but policy experts says lawmakers still need to reduce regulations to further help the expansion of broadband infrastructure.
The budget passed by the Senate would allocate $330 million for Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grants. It includes other money for broadband, including $15 million for broadband access at rural community colleges.
The House hasn’t acted on a budget plan, but has already shown a strong inclination toward using a healthy portion of the American Rescue Plan Act federal taxpayer money for broadband. It unanimously passed House Bill 947, the GREAT Broadband Expansion Act, which would use $400 million to create the Completing Access to Broadband program. It would also allocate $350 million in that federal relief toward the GREAT program. Lawmakers hope to connect all 100 counties with broadband through these programs.
The Senate didn’t act on that bill but, instead, put federal relief money in the budget.
Gov. Roy Cooper wanted to use $1.2 million of $5.7 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan for high-speed internet access, but legislators haven’t shown a willingness to spend that much on broadband.
Jon Sanders, John Locke Foundation research editor and senior fellow, Regulatory Studies, told Carolina Journal that the state needs to act on broadband, given both that there is plenty of federal money to pay for it and that the rural areas need it.
An estimated 1.1 million North Carolina households lack broadband access, studies have found.
“I believe it’s imperative for North Carolina to get ahead of the game in getting these unserved areas taken care of,” Sanders said.
But Sanders said lawmakers can do more to help facilitate broadband growth. While other states have passed laws limiting how much in permit fees government can charge providers or established one-touch, make-ready permitting for utility pole attachments, lawmakers have so far failed to act on these red-tape cutting issues.
Sanders notes that will only keep the costs of broadband expansion higher for providers and harm the state’s ability to close the digital divide.
There’s still time for lawmakers on these issues, but they seem to be a lower priority below such topics as voting and energy legislation.
“We’ve had some pretty significant issues coming before the General Assembly in the past few weeks and months,” Sanders noted, including the budget, Critical Race Theory, and reining in a governor’s power.