Buncombe County Commissioner Terri Wells, a Sandy Mush resident, said she's been advocating broadband expansion for 10 years.
"We've been doing this groundwork and we know where the needs are," she said. "And we're just tired of waiting."
Sandy Mush, a community in northwest Buncombe County, has a population of about 1,600, according to 2020 U.S. census data. Until recently, however, it barely had any internet.
That's changing now.
After Buncombe leaders hounded broadband expansion in 2021, the new budget, inked by Gov. Roy Cooper on Nov. 18, will give them even more broadband spending power.
Just weeks ago, Wells received broadband connections at her home for the first time as part of a French Broad Electric effort to bring fiber internet to Madison County and some of rural Buncombe.
Ever since internet was installed at the Sandy Mush Community Center about five years ago, Wells said people without service at home have been driving there to connect for personal and professional reasons.
"There were teachers who had who drive down there to conduct their classes," she said.
Sandy Mush Community Center Board of Directors member Kevin Campbell confirmed this, noting people would often park at the center just to use the internet. He said the community center is also making the shift now, tossing its current AT&T contract for the new French Broad fiber.
"Personally, we just got fiber in our house," he added, noting his wife now uses it for her business. "Everybody else I've talked to, if they can afford it, is using French Broad."
June Hawkins is part of the family that owns Sandy Hollar Farms in Sandy Mush. She said the family is waiting for its AT&T internet contract to expire in February.
"Rather than do a partial install, we're just going to wait until that contract's over and change everything," Hawkins said. "The big different will be the cost, I think. And one bill. It won't be a situation where we pay five or six different places. I guess we'll have to wait and see."
"The budget accomplishes two major things for us," Buncombe Economic Development Director Tim Love said. "One is it allocates funding toward broadband expansion through a variety of state programs."
He estimated broadband programming money headed to Buncombe could range from $2 million to $8 million, but that's unclear and subject to further discussion in the coming months.
The second major thing that the budget gives Buncombe is the ability to use federal COVID-19 money granted to local governments for broadband expansion.
"Something more subtle but equally important is, the way the language in the budget is written, is that it gives local governments the ability to utilize American Rescue Plan Act dollars," Love said.
So far, Buncombe received about half of the ARPA money it has coming, a total of about $51 million.
Nearly $4.5 million of that currently is earmarked for broadband expansion, according to a Buncombe government webpage called "COVID Recovery Funding," which chronicles its ARPA journey and asks for public input on how to spend the money.
Nearly $500,000 of that will go to planning and development group Land of Sky Regional Council. The money will be used to “rank and prioritize” a second phase of Wi-Fi implementation at Housing Authority facilities in Buncombe, according to a spending breakdown PDF posted on the webpage, last updated on Nov. 16.
This money also will be used to work with Land of Sky in supporting digital literacy for senior citizens, low-income individuals, those formerly incarnated, and those learning English as a second language.
The rest, $4 million, is slated for a project meant to "produce high-quality, future-proof infrastructure to serve this region for decades," according to the PDF.
Love said leaders have identified a company they want to work with to start expanding broadband in the county but have been waiting on the North Carolina budget legislation to allow them to use ARPA money for broadband.
"So here we are, we're on the doorstep," Love said. He would not name the company and said further selection steps may come to Buncombe County commission by early 2022. "I'm hoping in January we'll have something ready to be approved by the board."
William Sederburg is a lead with the WNC Broadband Project, an organization that "aims to support communities interested in ensuring access to reliable, truly high-speed internet service," according to its website.
"This sounds a little trite, but you don't need to make (the broadband expansion) sales pitch," Sederburg said. "We’ve now had four leadership summits, and everybody is on board. We've had mayor and county commissioners and state representatives. There's nobody that is against. That's why it's remarkable having this bipartisan spending bill. Everybody recognizes the need."
10%-15% of Buncombe has no access to broadband
The biggest issue, Sederburg added, isn't recognizing broadband needs, it's how to access resources.
In April, the WNC Broadband Project penned a letter to the Federal Communications Commission. It contains in-house research and data suggesting "10-15% of the (Buncombe) public does not have access to high speed broadband, in an area defined as 'not eligible for federal funding' because we are not 'rural.'"
Sederburg contends mapping is key to necessary broadband expansion, noting FCC data doesn't show the whole picture, especially because of a tendency to focus on rural areas.
"WNC has been short-changed in recent federal programs because of the federal
emphasis on funding rural areas," the letter concludes. "Federal programs must focus on all unserved areas in America, not just rural America, where much of the problem is in the process of being solved."
Exactly what money is available and how soon are still matters of ongoing and upcoming internal and public discussion, but leaders continue to back broadband expansion action.
“I will continue to advocate that everyone in Buncombe County has access to broadband,” Wells said. “Fortunately, I believe the groundwork that we have laid will help ensured that we’re well-positioned to leverage these state and federal funds.”
Andrew Jones is Buncombe County government and health care reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Follow or reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter. Email him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Newly passed NC budget frees Buncombe to reach broadband goals