By Tim Gardner
Many residences and various businesses in Avery County where, like other rural areas across the nation, has limited or sparse access to broadband internet service. The Federal government has provided Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic recovery money to local governments across America. While some North Carolina Mountain counties are dedicating some of the pandemic recovery money they received from the federal government to expand broadband access, only Avery is dedicating nearly all of its such federal dollars to the initiative.
Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr. said that the Board of County Commissioners has designated to use $3 million of their $3.4 million allotment in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to provide stable internet access in the county.
Barrier, Jr. said that broadband fiber will be installed courtesy of the ARPA funds that will reach home in a the 60-mile range in southwest Avery County.
Census data shows only 56 percent of Avery County households have internet through cable, fiber or digital subscriber lines — considered the most stable internet access providers. But that’s far below the state percentage of 68 percent, which holds an average of 55 percent of households with internet through cable, fiber or DSL.
Cable, fiber and DSL are regarded to provide the most reliable internet connection–especially in counties like Avery which has limited access. But these services require external infrastructure that has a huge installation cost.
So, when Barrier, Jr. learned Avery County would receive more than $3.4 million in ARPA funds, he urged county commissioners to figure out how to specifically designate the federal money to expand broadband access.
“The commissioners were in agreement that it would make a most positive difference to get affordable, reliable internet. And it was something we all felt was achievable and could become reality.” he said.
One of the United States Treasury Department’s key focuses of ARPA is ensuring stable broadband access — a necessity highlighted during the pandemic when many school, workplaces, businesses and health care moved almost entirely online.
The state, which received an ARPA allotment separate from those given to local governments, is using the funds to bolster broadband access throughout North Carolina.
Barrier, Jr. added that the county’s $3 million in ARPA funds will provide fiber access to approximately 900 homes.
“Since the receiving of the funds, the Board of County Commissioners has pledged the ARPA funding to help meet the need for affordable and reliable internet for all Avery County,” Barrier, Jr. added. “Avery County is still working with the State and the High Country Council of Governments (HCCOG) to make the greatest impact with the funding. We are all frustrated with the slow process, but feel that the juice will be worth the squeeze so-to-speak.”
The High Country Council of Governments serves seven counties, including Avery, and 19 municipalities in the High Country region, and has long provided an array of services to local governments that enhances the well-being of their communities. From the care of older adults to water, sewer, GIS services, transportation planning and workforce development, the Council provides services and resources which might not otherwise be affordable or available to local governments.