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American Rescue Plan funds could help county expand broadband access

Beaufort County will receive an estimated $9.1 million through the American Rescue Plan, which is the economic stimulus bill President Joe Biden signed into law March 11. Although the U.S. Treasury hasn’t released official allocation numbers or specific guidance regarding the funds, the bill states that the money can be used for “water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.”

A large chunk of Beaufort County’s estimated $9.1 million intake could be used for broadband infrastructure development, pending action by the county commissioners.

In March, the county entered into a five-year memorandum of understanding with RiverStreet Networks to help expand broadband internet services to unserved and underserved areas of the county.

RiverStreet became involved in the county’s broadband network planning long before that. In 2019, upon signing an agreement with the county, RiverStreet conducted a Fiber To The Home study, which yielded a design and an estimated cost for installing a fiber network backbone in parts of Beaufort County, the exceptions being areas in Belhaven, Chocowinity and Washington that already have broadband service. The design involves roughly 152 miles of fiber passing 690 homes.

The network would expand throughout the county as more funding becomes available.

The project would cost between $5.7 million and $7.2 million, depending on how many households connect to the network.

The county commissioners on Monday will consider directing County Manager Brian Alligood and County Attorney David Francisco to draft an agreement stating that the county will provide RiverStreet with a grant to build the network backbone. According to supporting documents from the county, the agreement would include a revenue sharing agreement between the county and RiverStreet for all accounts connected to the network infrastructure.

The projected fiscal impact shown in the supporting document is $7.2 million in American Rescue Plan funds.

If the county commissioners vote in favor of allowing the parties involved drafting the agreement, a final draft of the agreement would eventually be presented for their approval.

The broadband expansion item is part of a packed agenda for Monday night’s Beaufort County Commissioners meeting, which is slated to begin at 5:30 p.m. at 136 W. Second St. in Washington.