§ 143B-1373.  Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) program.

(a)        As used in this section, the following definitions apply:

(1)        Agriculture. - Activities defined in G.S. 106-581.1.

(2)        Broadband service. - For the purposes of this section, terrestrially deployed Internet access service with transmission speeds of at least 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and at least one megabit per second upload (10:1).

(3)        Coastal Plain Region. - The portion of the State lying east of the eastern boundaries of Franklin, Lee, Moore, Wake, and Warren Counties.

(4)        Cooperative. - An electric membership corporation, organized pursuant to Article 2 of Chapter 117 of the General Statutes, or a telephone membership corporation, organized pursuant to Article 4 of Chapter 117 of the General Statutes.

(5)        Eligible economically distressed county. - A county designated as a development tier one or tier two area, as defined in G.S. 143B-473.08.

(6)        Eligible project. - An eligible project is a discrete and specific project located in an unserved area of an economically distressed county seeking to provide broadband service to homes, businesses, and community anchor points not currently served. Eligible projects do not include middle mile, backhaul, and other similar projects not directed at broadband service to end users. If a contiguous project area crosses from one eligible county into one or more eligible adjacent counties, for the purposes of this section, the project shall be deemed to be located in the county where the greatest number of unserved households are proposed to be served.

(7)        Eligible recipient. - Eligible grant recipients are private providers of broadband services, including cooperatively organized entities, or any partnerships formed between cooperatively organized entities, private providers, or any combination thereof.

(8)        Household. - A house, apartment, single room, or other group of rooms, if occupied or intended for occupancy as separate living quarters, and where the occupants do not live with any other persons in the structure and there is direct access from the outside or through a common hall.

(8a)      Infrastructure. - Existing facilities, equipment, materials, and structures that an entity has installed either for its core business or public enterprise purposes. Examples include, but are not limited to, copper wire, coaxial cable, optical cable, loose tube cable, communication huts, conduits, vaults, patch panels, mounting hardware, poles, generators, battery and cabinet, network nodes, network routers, network switches, microwave relay, microwave receivers, site routers, outdoor cabinets, towers, easements, rights-of-way, and buildings or structures owned by the entity that are made available for location or collocation purposes.

(9)        Infrastructure costs. - Costs directly related to the construction of broadband infrastructure for the extension of broadband service for an eligible project, including installation, acquiring or updating easements, backhaul infrastructure, and testing costs. The term does not include overhead or administrative costs.

(10)      Mountain Region. - The portion of the State lying west of and including Alleghany, Burke, Caldwell, Rutherford, and Wilkes Counties.

(11)      Office. - The Broadband Infrastructure Office in the Department of Information Technology.

(11a)    Partnership. - A project for which an Internet service provider affirms that a formalized agreement exists between the provider and one or more unaffiliated partners where the partner is one of the following:

a.         A separate Internet service provider.

b.         A nonprofit or not-for-profit, or a for-profit subsidiary of either, and the Internet service provider is being allowed access and use of the partner's infrastructure, on special terms and conditions designed to facilitate the provision of broadband services in unserved areas, or is utilizing a financial contribution provided by one or more partners where the total contribution is not less than ten percent (10%), but not more than forty-nine percent (49%), of the match required by this section. A county that is not engaged in providing consumer broadband service may qualify as a nonprofit for the purpose of this section.

(12)      Piedmont Region. - The portion of the State lying west of and including Franklin, Lee, Moore, Richmond, Wake, and Warren Counties, to the eastern boundaries of Alleghany, Burke, Caldwell, Rutherford, and Wilkes Counties.

(12a)    Prospective broadband recipient. - A household, home, business, community anchor point, agricultural operation, or agricultural processing facility that is currently unserved and is identified in an application submitted in accordance with this section.

(13)      Secretary. - The Secretary of the Department of Information Technology.

(14)      Unserved area. - A designated geographic area that is presently without access to broadband service, as defined in this section, offered by a wireline or fixed wireless provider. Areas where a private provider has been designated to receive funds through other State or federally funded programs designed specifically for broadband deployment shall be considered served if such funding is intended to result in construction of broadband in the area within 18 months.

(b)        The Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology Fund is established as a special revenue fund in the Department of Information Technology. The Secretary may award grants from the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology Fund to eligible recipients for eligible projects. The funds shall be used by the recipient to pay for infrastructure costs associated with an eligible project. State funds appropriated to this Fund shall be considered an information technology project within the meaning of G.S. 143C-1-2.

(c)        Project areas comprised of census blocks, or portions thereof, within which a broadband provider is receiving matching funds to deploy broadband service within the next 18 months are ineligible for the GREAT program. It is essential for the Office to know the location of census blocks, or portions thereof, comprising these areas so it can determine project eligibility. A private provider receiving Universal Service or Connect America Phase II, or nonfederal funds to deploy broadband service may qualify such area for protection by submitting within 60 days of the application period a listing of the census blocks, or portions thereof, comprising the federally funded project areas meeting this requirement and nothing more to the Office. In future program years, the cutoff date for submitting this census block data shall be established by the Office, but shall be not less than 60 days prior to the beginning date of the application period. This will enable the office to update maps and advise applicants as to the unserved areas of the State that are eligible for consideration in that program year. The Office shall only utilize this data to update maps of census blocks to reflect these census blocks, or portions thereof, as being served. Failure on the part of a provider to submit the listing of census blocks by the cutoff date shall result in those areas being eligible for inclusion under this program during the upcoming program year. The Office shall use the census block data provided only for mapping of unserved areas. Upon expiration of the 18-month reservation period described in this subsection, a private provider that has received a reservation of census blocks shall submit written documentation by April 30 of the year following the program year that broadband deployment has begun or been completed in the census blocks, or portions thereof, that have been deemed ineligible by the Office due to the existence of a federally funded project area. Information provided to the Office pursuant to this subsection is not a public record, as that term is defined in G.S. 132-1.

(d)       Applications for grants will be submitted at times designated by the Secretary and will include, at a minimum, the following information:

(1)        An attestation to the Office that the proposed project area is eligible.

(2)        The identity of the applicant and its qualifications and experience with deployment of broadband.

(3)        The total cost and duration of the project.

(4)        The amount to be funded by the applicant.

(5)        An illustration or description of the area to be served, identifying the number of homes, businesses, community anchor points, agricultural operations, or agricultural processing facilities that will have access to broadband as a result of the project, including any available addresses, or other identifying information satisfactory to the Office, for the foregoing. In the event that the Office is unable to identify the proposed project area with specificity, the Office may require the applicant to submit additional information. If construction of the proposed project would result in the provision of broadband service to areas that are not eligible for funding, those ineligible areas should be identified in the application along with the eligible areas.

(6)        An assessment of the current level of broadband access in the proposed deployment area.

(7)        The proposed construction time line.

(8)        A description of the services to be provided, including the proposed upstream and downstream broadband speeds to be delivered and any applicable data caps, provided that any applicant proposing a data cap below 150 Gigabytes of usage per month shall provide justification to the satisfaction of the Office that the proposed cap is in the public interest and consistent with industry standards.

(9)        Any other information or supplementary documentation requested by the Office.

(10)      A plan to encourage users to connect that incorporates, at a minimum, community education forums, multimedia advertising, and marketing programs.

(11)      For the proposed area to be served, the infrastructure cost per household for the project.

(12)      Evidence of support for the project from citizens, local government, businesses, and institutions in the community.

(13)      The proposed advertised speed to be marketed to end users.

(14)      An explanation of the scalability of the broadband infrastructure to be deployed for higher broadband speeds in the future.

(d1)     A provider submitting an application pursuant to this section shall bear the burden of proof that the proposed area to be served can, in fact, be served using the proposed technology. The burden of proof may be satisfied by the submission of data, maps, and any other information satisfactory to the Office, demonstrating that the area and number of prospective broadband recipients proposed to be served can be provided the minimum upload and download speeds indicated in the application.

(e)        Applications shall be made publicly available by posting on the Web site of the Department of Information Technology for a period of at least 30 days prior to award. During the 30-day period, any interested party may submit comments to the Secretary concerning any pending application. A provider of broadband services may submit a protest of any application on the grounds the proposed project covers an area that is not an eligible area under this section. Protests shall be submitted in writing, accompanied by all relevant supporting documentation, and shall be considered by the Office in connection with the review of the application. Upon submission of evidence satisfactory to the Office that the proposed project area includes prospective broadband recipients that are served, as measured using a methodology satisfactory to the Office, the Office may work with an applicant to amend an application to reduce the number of unserved prospective broadband recipients in the project area to reflect an accurate level of current broadband service. The Office may revise application scores in accordance with amended applications. For applications with filed protests, the Secretary shall issue a written decision to the protesting party at least 15 days prior to the approval of that application. Following a protest that is granted for a portion of the application, the Office may release to an applicant the locations or areas declared ineligible. The information released to the applicant is not a public record, as that term is defined under G.S. 132-1, and shall remain confidential. Any provider submitting a protest shall verify that the information in the protest is accurate and that the protest is submitted in good faith. The Office may deny any protest or application that contains inaccurate information.

As a means of resolving a protest, the Office may utilize speed tests to determine if the protested area or individual households or businesses currently have access to broadband service as defined in this section. The Department shall publish the speed test methodology it uses to assess speed levels pursuant to this section. All decisions regarding the speed test to be utilized and the manner by which the speed tests are applied shall be made by the Secretary or the Secretary's designee.

(f)        The Office may consult with the Department of Commerce to determine if a broadband project proposed under this section will benefit a potential economic development project relevant to the proposed area outlined in the broadband project.

(g)        Applications shall be scored based upon a system that awards a single point for criteria considered to be the minimum level for the provision of broadband service with additional points awarded to criteria that exceed minimum levels. The Office shall score project applications in accordance with the following:

(1)        Partnership. - Projects involving partnership shall be given points in their application score. For the purposes of scoring under this subdivision, a county that provides a portion of the match required by this section or that has entered into an agreement with the applicant to make available its infrastructure that has been installed for the county's enterprise, nonconsumer broadband purposes, or any other property, buildings, or structures owned by the county, for a proposed project under this section shall be considered a partnership. A county may provide a portion of the match required by this section pursuant to G.S. 153A-349.60. Projects involving partnerships shall be given six points in their application score.

(2)        Unserved households. - The Office shall give additional points to projects based upon the estimated number of unserved households within the eligible economically distressed county, as determined by the most recent data published by the Federal Communications Commission or any other information available to the Office. Points shall be given to projects that will be located in counties with estimated unserved households as follows:

Unserved Households                   Points Given

500 or less                                       1

501-1400                                        2

Over 1400

(3)        Unserved households to be served. - The Office shall give additional points to projects that will provide broadband service based upon the percentage of the total unserved households within the eligible economically distressed county that the project will serve. The number of unserved households shall be determined using the most recent data published by the Federal Communications Commission or any other information available to the Office. Points shall be given to projects that will serve a percentage of unserved households within the project area as follows:

% Unserved Households To Be Served                    Points Given

Under Less than 15%                                                   1

15% to 25%                                                                  2

Over 25%                                                                     3

(4)        Unserved businesses. - The Office shall give additional points to projects that will provide broadband service to unserved businesses located within the eligible economically distressed county, as determined by the most recent data published by the Federal Communications Commission or any other information available to the Office. Points shall be given to projects that serve unserved businesses within the project area as follows:

a.         Projects proposing to serve between 1 and 4 businesses shall receive 1 point.

b.         Projects proposing to serve between 5 and 10 businesses shall receive 2 points.

c.         Projects proposing to serve either (i) more than 10 businesses or (ii) an agricultural operation, agricultural processing facility, or a business with 31 or more full-time employees shall receive 3 points.

(5)        Cost per household. - The Office shall give additional points to projects that minimize the infrastructure cost of the proposed project per household, based upon information available to the Office. Points shall be given to projects based upon the estimated cost per household as follows:

a.         For projects proposed in the Piedmont or Coastal Plain Regions:

 

Est. Cost per                                              Partnership Using                     Private Provider

Household                                                  Infrastructure                            Only

Up to $1,700                                               4                                                   9

$1,701-2,200                                              3                                                   8

b.   For projects located in the Mountain Region:

Est. Cost per                                              Partnership Using                     Private Provider

Household                                                  Infrastructure                            Only

Up to $2,500                                               4                                                   9

$2501-3,300                                               3                                                   8

 

(6)        Base speed multiplier. - Projects that will provide minimum download and minimum upload speeds shall have the aggregate points given under subdivisions (1) through (5) of this subsection multiplied by a factor at the level indicated in the table below:

Minimum Download:

Minimum Upload                                         Score Multiplier

At least 10:1 Mbps. up to 25:3 Mbps.                     0.95

25:3 Mbps. up to 100:10 Mbps.                               1.35

100:10 Mbps. or greater                                           1.75

 

(h)        The Office shall score applications based upon the metrics provided in subsection (g) of this section. In awarding grants based upon the scoring metrics, the Office shall also award an additional point to projects where a county has a Community Broadband Planning Playbook that meets the guidelines established by the Office.

(i)         (Effective until July 1, 2021) Applications receiving the highest score shall receive priority status for the awarding of grants pursuant this section. As a means of breaking a tie for applications receiving the same score, the Office shall give priority to the application proposing to serve the highest number of new households at the lowest cost per household. Applicants awarded grants pursuant to this section shall enter into an agreement with the Office. The agreement shall contain all of the elements outlined in subsection (d) of this section and any other provisions the Office may require. The agreement shall contain a provision governing the time line and minimum requirements and thresholds for disbursement of grant funds measured by the progress of the project. Grant funds shall be disbursed only upon verification by the Office that the terms of the agreement have been fulfilled according to the progress milestones contained in the agreement. At project completion, the grant recipient shall certify and provide to the Office evidence consistent with Federal Communications Commission attestation that either speeds greater than those identified in the application guidelines or the proposed upstream and downstream broadband speeds identified in the application guidelines, and for which a base speed multiplier was awarded pursuant to subdivision (6) of subsection (g) of this section, are available throughout the project area prior to any end user connections. A single grant award shall not exceed two million dollars ($2,000,000). No more than one grant may be awarded per fiscal year for a project in any one eligible economically distressed county; except that if funds remain available after all top scoring projects have been awarded a grant, then the next highest scoring projects may be awarded a grant even if the project is located in a county where a grant has been awarded in that fiscal year provided the total award associated with that county does not exceed two million dollars ($2,000,000) in that fiscal year.

No more than one-third of the funds appropriated to the fund established in subsection (b) of this section shall be disbursed for projects located in a development tier two county.

(i)         (Effective July 1, 2021) Applications receiving the highest score shall receive priority status for the awarding of grants pursuant this section. As a means of breaking a tie for applications receiving the same score, the Office shall give priority to the application proposing to serve the highest number of new households at the lowest cost per household. Applicants awarded grants pursuant to this section shall enter into an agreement with the Office. The agreement shall contain all of the elements outlined in subsection (d) of this section and any other provisions the Office may require. The agreement shall contain a provision governing the time line and minimum requirements and thresholds for disbursement of grant funds measured by the progress of the project. Grant funds shall be disbursed only upon verification by the Office that the terms of the agreement have been fulfilled according to the progress milestones contained in the agreement. At project completion, the grant recipient shall certify and provide to the Office evidence consistent with Federal Communications Commission attestation that either speeds greater than those identified in the application guidelines or the proposed upstream and downstream broadband speeds identified in the application guidelines, and for which a base speed multiplier was awarded pursuant to subdivision (6) of subsection (g) of this section, are available throughout the project area prior to any end user connections. A single grant award shall not exceed two million dollars ($2,000,000). No more than one grant may be awarded per fiscal year for a project in any one eligible economically distressed county; except that if funds remain available after all top scoring projects have been awarded a grant, then the next highest scoring projects may be awarded a grant even if the project is located in a county where a grant has been awarded in that fiscal year provided the total award associated with that county does not exceed two million dollars ($2,000,000) in that fiscal year.

No more than one-half of the funds appropriated to the fund established in subsection (b) of this section shall be disbursed for projects located in a development tier two county. If the Office has not received enough grant applications for projects located in a development tier one county to disburse one-half of the funds appropriated to the fund established in subsection (b) of this section as of March 1 of each year, then the Office may allocate any unencumbered funds in the fund for projects located in a development tier two county.

(j)         Grant recipients are required to provide matching funds based upon the application scoring pursuant to this section in the following minimum amounts:

Score                                                                                 Matching Requirement

12.0 points or less                                                                           55%

Greater than 12.0 points, but less than 17.5 points                        50%

17.5 points, up to 22.0 points                                                         45%

Greater than 22.0 points                                                                 35%

Up to fifty percent (50%) of matching funds paid by the grant recipient may be comprised of third-party funding and other grant programs. Universal Service Fund, or Connect America Phase II Fund shall not be used for the required matching funds. Any other current or future federal funds may be used, including any future phase of the Connect America Fund, for the required matching funds within the parameters of this program.

(k)        The Office shall require that grant recipients offer the proposed advertised minimum download and minimum upload speeds identified in the project application for the duration of the five-year service agreement. At least annually, a grant recipient shall provide to the Office evidence consistent with Federal Communications Commission attestation that the grant recipient is making available the proposed advertised speed, or a faster speed, as contained in the grant agreement. For the duration of the agreement, grant recipients shall disclose any changes to data caps for the project area that differ from the data caps listed in the grant application to the Office.

(l)         A grant recipient shall forfeit the amount of the grant received if it fails to perform, in material respect, the obligations established in the agreement. Grant recipients that fail to provide the minimum advertised connection speed for which a reduction in matching funds was applied shall forfeit that amount. A grant recipient that forfeits amounts disbursed under this section is liable for the amount disbursed plus interest at the rate established under G.S. 105-241.21, computed from the date of the disbursement. The number of subscribers that subscribe to broadband services offered by the provider in the project area shall not be a measure of performance under the agreement for the purposes of this subsection.

(m)       The Office of Broadband Infrastructure in the Department of Information Technology shall be the designated agency for receipt and disbursement of federal grant funds intended for the State for broadband expansion and shall seek available federal grant funds for that purpose. All federal grant funds received for the purpose of broadband expansion shall be disbursed in accordance with this section.

(n)        Grant recipients shall submit to the Office an annual report for each funded project for the duration of the agreement. The report shall include a summary of the items contained in the grant agreement and level of attainment for each and shall also include (i) the number of households, businesses, agriculture operations, and community anchor points that have broadband access as a result of the project; (ii) the percentage of end users in the project area who have access to broadband service and actually subscribe to the broadband service; and (iii) the average monthly subscription cost for broadband service in the project area.

(o)        The Department of Information Technology shall submit an annual report to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee for Information Technology and the Fiscal Research Division on or before September 1. The report shall contain at least all of the following:

(1)        The number of grant projects applied for and the number of grant agreements entered into.

(2)        A time line for each grant agreement and the number of households, businesses, agriculture operations, and community anchor points expected to benefit from each agreement.

(3)        The amount of matching funds required for each agreement and the total amount of investment.

(4)        A summary of areas receiving grants that are now being provided broadband service and the advertised broadband speeds for those areas.

(5)        Any breaches of agreements, grant fund forfeitures, or subsequent reductions or refunds of matching funds.

(6)        Any recommendations for the grant program, including better sources and methods for improving outcomes and accountability.

(p)        The Department may use up to one percent (1.0%) of the appropriated funds to administer the GREAT program.  (2018-5, s. 37.1(b); 2018-97, s. 10.1(a), (b); 2019-230, ss. 1-5.)