Legislative Session Review: Information Technology
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for high-speed internet connection was front and center due to more families working, and school children learning, from home and the increased usage of telehealth services. According to the North Carolina Division of Broadband and Digital Equity, nearly a fifth of all North Carolina households do not have access to high-speed internet service, with even more households lacking internet due to affordability concerns. The problem is exacerbated in rural communities, with some counties seeing as much as 40% of their population lacking access to internet.
In 2018, the state created the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or G.R.E.A.T., grant program to award service providers additional funds to expand infrastructure in underserved areas. Early in the 2021-2023 fiscal biennium, leadership in the General Assembly and Governor Cooper’s administration made expanding internet access by building out broadband infrastructure a top rel="noopener noreferrer" priority. Through Senate Bill 105: 2021 Appropriations Act, the state invested nearly $1 billion in non-recurring federal COVID-19 relief funds in broadband expansion, including:
- $350 million for grants to expand broadband in rural areas through the G.R.E.A.T. grant fund.
- $400 million for the Completing Access to Broadband Fund (CAB Fund), which is a special revenue fund within the North Carolina Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) that is used to match county funds to expand broadband infrastructure in areas where the G.R.E.A.T. grant dollars are not applicable.
- $100 million for costs related to new utility poles to rapidly deploy broadband access.
- $90 million for targeted grants to address local infrastructure needs and to connect underserved households to broadband infrastructure.
- $15 million for broadband access programs for 25 community colleges in rural counties.
During the 2022 legislative short session, state leaders continued their push to increase funding for access to internet. House Bill 243: Budget Technical Corrections, which Governor Cooper signed into law March 17, 2022, made corrections to the funding formula for the broadband funds passed in the 2021 budget. The bill allows NCDIT flexibility to transfer funding between the G.R.E.A.T. grant program, CAB fund, and stop gap programs if the total allocations for the programs remain the same.
House Bill 103, the 2022 Appropriations Act, which the Governor signed into law July 11, increases the total G.R.E.A.T. grant fund by $5 million to $20 million recurring. Additionally, HB 103 made several changes to broadband requirements and broadband funding across the state, including an increase to the megabytes per second required to receive broadband infrastructure grants in North Carolina. Perhaps most importantly, though, HB 103 clarified that federal funds could be used for the various broadband expansion programs.
With the flexibility provided by bills passed during the legislature's 2021-2022 legislative session, NCDIT announced that $350 million of G.R.E.A.T. grant funding will be awarded in the current round. NCDIT’s Broadband Infrastructure Office also announced Monday, July 18, the disbursement of $23.4 million in the first tranche of allocating the full $350 million. Twelve counties, with nearly 7,000 households and 374 businesses, will benefit from the grant funds