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  • Thomas Sherrill, The News Reporter

$2.4M grant to bring high-speed internet to thousands in Columbus’ rural communities

ATMC announced Friday that it will receive $2.4 million from the state to expand high-speed internet service to more than 1,600 addresses throughout Columbus County.

The Shallotte-based member-owned cooperative that provides broadband services through its subsidiary said that the high-speed internet will be spread “in or around the rural communities of Boardman, Cerro Gordo, Clarendon, Ricefield, Sandyfield and areas just outside of Chadbourn, Tabor City and Whiteville,” plus “an additional 130 addresses along the Columbus-Brunswick line near the Northwest community.”

The Columbus portion of the grant was part of a $7.8 million award through the Growing Rural Economies through Access to Technology (GREAT) Grant Program that will benefit more than 5,000 addresses across Brunswick, Columbus, Duplin and Robeson counties, ATMC announced.

ATMC said it will provide $1 million in matching funds for the Columbus portion of the project and $3.3 million in total across the four counties.

“ATMC is excited to receive these grants through this special round of funding through the NC GREAT Grant Program,” said ATMC CEO Keith Holden in the Friday statement. “This will be the third GREAT Grant award, and fifth grant overall that ATMC has received. The sum of all of these grants will allow for us to offer high-speed internet service to approximately 10,000 homes in rural Columbus County.”

High-speed internet will be spread “in or around the rural communities of Boardman, Cerro Gordo, Clarendon, Ricefield, Sandyfield and areas just outside of Chadbourn, Tabor City and Whiteville,” plus “an additional 130 addresses along the Columbus-Brunswick line near the Northwest community.”

Work in Raleigh

The funding has not been finalized yet, but will come in a vote early in 2021 after the new session of the N.C. General Assembly opens. All awards are “contingent on final executed grant agreements with these broadband provider partners,” Gov. Roy Cooper’s Dec. 17 statement said.

“In the meantime, the companies receiving the grants will continue the administrative process of executing contracts and preparing to disburse the funds,” according to a statement from N.C. Sen. Danny Britt.

The Republican, who represents Robeson and Columbus counties in the N.C. Senate, said in a Dec. 17 statement that he helped negotiate the final deal on the broadband grants after he said Cooper’s Democratic administration put the funding on hold.

“With many families relying on telehealth and virtual learning, high-speed internet access is more important now than ever. I’m glad to have played a role in making sure this broadband grant funding gets to our community,” Britt stated.

Republican Rep. Brenden Jones, who represents parts of Robeson and Columbus counties in the N.C. House, said in a statement also on Dec. 17 that he “worked tirelessly to finalize the deal.”

“As part of my leadership position, I was made aware of what Governor Cooper was attempting to do. Myself, along with other house leaders, sprung into immediate action and were able to make sure the funding was put into its original use,” Jones said. “This will be a huge boost for our area.”

The N.C. GREAT Grant Program was established in 2019 to provi

de high-speed internet service in rural N.C. counties that are considered the most economically distressed.

In total $29.8 million was recently announced for 11 providers and cooperatives for projects in 18 different counties.

“This pandemic is shining a light on the need for better high-speed Internet access in rural communities,” Cooper said in a Dec. 17 statement. “These projects will make sure the internet can connect people to the education, health care and jobs they need.”

The GREAT Grant Fund sets a minimum amount of high-speed Internet service as “a minimum of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.”

“We appreciate every resident, business owner and community leader that sent in letters of support on behalf of these grant projects,” Holden, the ATMC CEO, stated on Friday. “We are also grateful to N.C. Sen. Danny Britt and N.C. Rep Brenden Jones for their ongoing support of ATMC and the GREAT grant program. We would also like to thank Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation for partnering with us and allowing us to use their fiber network to reach some of these communities.”

Earlier expansions

Previously, ATMC received a $12 million grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2010 to bring high-speed internet to more than 2,600 residents and businesses in the Nakina and Old Dock communities, ATMC’s Friday statement said.

Back in July, the company announced that a $1 million grant from the 2019 N.C. GREAT Grant Program had brought high-speed internet to 1,200 households in the Beaverdam community.

Another high-speed internet project under construction is one using a $7.9 million grant obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect broadband Program in 2019 to service more than 4,000 homes “in the rural areas near Tabor City, Hallsboro, Lake Waccamaw, Bolton and areas north of Whiteville. That project, which began in the summer, will be completed “in the next few months,” ATMC stated.

ATMC’s second 2020 N.C. GREAT Grant Program grant was previously announced in August, in the amount of $3.7 million for projects in Columbus, Robeson and Duplin counties. That grant will service 1,200 households in the towns of Fair Bluff and Boardman, ATMC said.

“Upon completion of these projects, since 2011, ATMC will have invested approximately $40 million in projects that will improve and expand high-speed Internet service in Columbus County,” ATMC states.

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