Billions of dollars in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act broadband grants have begun to flow toward the nation's rural communities, aimed at erasing critical gaps in service and speed that hamper many rural schools or simply shut them out.
The grants and projects vary widely, from funding fixed wireless broadband in Michigan to providing mobile broadband access to rural Alabama. Yet all the projects focus primarily on unserved or underserved communities and in many instances will provide discounted service to anchor institutions in communities such as schools and libraries.
That has some rural advocates saying these public investments, under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, or BTOP, have the potential to alter the playing field for rural schools and the communities they serve.
"This BTOP award is truly a game changer for North Carolina," said Erskine Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina system. He was referring specifically to a $75.8 million ARRA grant announced last week for North Carolina from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Read more about that latest round of grants here.
Bowles, who chaired a rural prosperity task force 11 years ago that set blanket broadband access for students and households as its top priority, called the N.C. grant "the most significant event toward toward meeting this goal since it was crafted a decade ago."
The award, along with $24 million in matching money from the Golden Leaf Foundation, will allow the non-profit MCNC to offer affordable middle-mile broadband service in 69 of the most economically disadvantaged rural counties along the northern and southern borders of North Carolina. Middle-mile is the part of the network that connects telecom companies' central offices (called last-mile facilities) with the commercial internet and national and global advanced research networks. The project plans to directly connect 170 community institutions to broadband. As many as 5.1 million individuals stand to benefit, as do 160,000 businesses.
The investment will significantly expand the footprint of the North Carolina Research and Education Network, which provides broadband and support services to K-12 school districts, higher education campuses, and academic research institutions across the state.
The state's northeast corridor—which includes many of the state's highest-poverty counties and schools—in particular will benefit. In Nash and Edgecombe counties, for example, the local newspaper reports the grant will pay to hard-wire public schools, two community colleges, and a public library.
When the AARA broadband money was debated in Washington, not everyone thought spending money to connect rural communities offered as much promise as Bowles' remarks suggest. Here's an NPR story from last year that examines criticisms.
Yet the money rolls, bringing jobs and, perhaps more significant in the long-term, bandwidth and speed. Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Broadband Grants will bring wired and wireless service to rural and Native American communities, including projects in Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Here's a story about an earlier round of USDA rural broadband grants.