FILE - Rural broadband

Earth digger used to help lay cables for rural broadband connection.

(The Center Square) – A group of Republicans is calling on Gov. Roy Cooper to release funding meant to improve internet access in rural areas.

Cooper approved the $30 million in grants for private broadband service providers to upgrade bandwidth data transmission in rural communities in September as part of the North Carolina Legislature’s third coronavirus relief bill.

According to a letter sent Friday by 15 Republican state senators to Cooper, 70 providers submitted proposals for the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Program but were told by the Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) that the funding no longer would be issued.

Republicans said the funding was supposed to be allocated for internet expansion in the neediest communities.

According to the state’s broadband availability index, more than 30 of North Carolina’s 100 counties lack reliable access to the internet. Hyde County scored 0 on the availability scale of 0 to 95. Graham, Swain and Greene counties scored less than 30. Lawmakers said broadband capacity is more crucial now amid the pandemic, which has increased the need for telehealth services and remote learning.

“The people in our rural areas desperately need broadband access," Sen. Jim Perry, R-Lenoir, said in a statement.

The $30 million was made available through direct Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding approved by Congress in March. Congress earmarked the funds to help states with COVID-19-related expenses. States must spend the money by the end of December. Dozens of providers were expected to receive an award from the GREAT program, the letter reads.

Cooper’s office did not respond to a request for comment. OBSM spokesperson Marcia Evans said the office pulled back the funds to avoid losing the federal funding.

"Gov. Cooper and our legislators strongly support using [Coronavirus Relief Fund] funds to expand access to broadband, but evolving federal guidelines have raised concerns that due to the federal government's end-of-year spending deadline, the grants for broadband infrastructure would not be eligible and could risk North Carolina losing access to the funding," Evans said.

State lawmakers were informed of the potential risk as the federal rules continue to evolve, Evans said.

"We have continued to urge our state's congressional delegation to pass additional funds, expand eligibility and extend the timelines that the state has to spend existing funds as COVID-19 surges across the country," she said.

Perry said changes to federal guidelines do not affect the GREAT program funding.

“I hope the governor will work with us to help these people," Perry said. "They are already expressing concerns that he is taking their funding for his pet projects. I hope they are wrong, and he chooses to help us.”

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for four years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.