By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • After several years of planning, a project to bring affordable broadband internet access to underserved areas of Hoke County has gotten the green light from commissioners.
County staff members have worked with the Shallotte-based Focus Broadband, formerly known as Atlantic Telephone Membership Cooperative, to create a partnership that will see the county and Focus Broadband team up to secure grant funding from the state. The grant money will go toward installing fiberoptic cables and other necessary hardware in the western and southwestern areas of Hoke County.
Multiple surveys showed those parts of the county are the most lacking in broadband internet access, Focus Broadband director Chris Ward told the board Monday night.
Ward presented numbers that reported an estimated 2,904 unserved homes in the county. The grant funding for the project would allow 1,908 of those homes, and 27 businesses to have available broadband internet access.
The company plans to offer a $30 a month service package to customers, Ward said. He added that the state offers a $30 benefit voucher to help low-income families afford internet service through the Affordable Connectivity Program (https://www.ncbroadband.gov/assistance/affordable-connectivity-program).
The project comes with a hefty price tag. Engineering studies showed a cost estimate of $2,700 per household to install the fiberoptic cables and hardware needed to expand service in Hoke. The company itself expects to put about $2 million toward the installation expenses.
First, the county and Focus Broadband have to apply for the grant funding from the state. The money is part of the N.C. GREAT grant program, which stands for Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology. The program is an effort from North Carolina leaders to use $350 million in federal American Recovery Plan funds to improve internet access state-wide.
The N.C. GREAT grant application deadline is April 4, meaning the commission had to make a decision quickly if Hoke leaders wanted to move forward with the grant process.
After discussion and a closed session, Hoke commissioners voted to dedicate $668,700 of the county’s roughly $10.7 million in American Recovery Act (ARP) federal funds to the project as the county’s contribution. The county is splitting half the upfront cost with Focus Broadband.
Initially during the meeting, the county board voted to contribute $150,000 as a match, but the board members changed their minds after further discussion about the county’s available ARP funds, Commission Chairman Allen Thomas said Tuesday.
“After consulting with the county manager we learned that the board received around $10.7 million dollars in ARP funding. The ARP guidelines allow the first $10 million to be flexible, however the remaining grant amount is very specific as to what we are legally allowed to use the funds for. We decided that due to the allocation constraints, we would be good partners and fund the entire 50 percent match,” Thomas clarified.
Providing the full 50/50 match will help the county earn more points in the point-based grant application system, Ward told the board members. Additionally, using strictly ARP funds to pay for the county’s match added more points toward the county’s total.
The areas that are eligible for the program are defined by the state, not the county or the broadband company. N.C. GREAT grant eligible project areas are without access to internet service at 25/3 Mbps (megabytes per second) offered by a wire line or fixed wireless provider. Projects getting money from the N.C. GREAT grant have to provide speeds of 100/20 Mbps minimum initially, and reliably provide 100/100 Mbps by December 31, 2026.
Focus Broadband will offer much faster speeds than that, Ward said.
“Our internet is ten times faster than what they’re requiring people to do. We offer gigabit by gigabit, symmetrical, and by the time this is announced later this year we’ll offer two gigs, symmetrical, so we are providing a lot faster internet than even the state is requiring of us,” he said.
The company has already picked out a parcel of land off of Neil Sinclair Road to place an optical line terminal (OLT) switch as part of the expansion, Ward noted.
The projects have to be completed within two years from the date the grant is awarded.
The maximum grant size is $4 million per county. Any project that applies for the grant but is not funded in an award round will instead be eligible for the Completing Access to Broadband program.
For more information about Focus Broadband, visit https://www.focusbroadband.com. For more on the N.C. GREAT grant program, visit https://www.ncbroadband.gov/grants/other-resources/great-grant-state.