Donald “DJ” LaVoy, lives in Alexandria, Va. — a few miles away from Washington, D.C., but owns a house in Reedville, Va., a small fishing village home to 800 people.
During a Wednesday visit to the Star Communications Distribution Center in Clinton, LaVoy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development, spoke about the problems rural areas face when it come to technology infrastructure.
“You can get one bar on your phone if you’re real still and hold that bad boy just like this,” LaVoy said while pretending to have a cellphone in his hand. “Many of you can relate. Broadband has now come to Reedville and the difference is remarkable. We have two new businesses that have shown up. We have people connecting like they never have been before. Fiber optic cable has arrived and people are excited. The best of both worlds — a small town connected to the world, just like Clinton.”
Along with Star Communications and USDA officials, LaVoy is looking forward to more Sampson County residents streaming television or participating in distance learning program, thanks to a major grant. During a ceremony in Sampson County, LaVoy announced that the USDA has invested $23.7 million in high-speed broadband infrastructure to improve rural e-Connectivity for more than 8,700 homes in North Carolina. It’s one of many funding announcements for the first round of the USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program.
“One of things that I like to say about this wonderful program, it allows you to live anywhere that you choose to live in this great country of ours,” LaVoy said. “You still have the ability to connect. Rural America is a great option and with broadband and you having that choice to make that connection, you can stay anywhere that you choose.”
Along with LaVoy, many officials were excited to share the news for rural residents.
“We know that bringing broadband to all of our country allows us all to connect and connection is the thing that will basically take us to where we have to be in the future,” LaVoy said.
He continued and said it was a game changer.
“Think of your front door,” LaVoy said. “When your front door is closed, nothing comes in, nothing comes out. When it’s open, friends, neighbors enter. You go out, go to work, go to school, connect with friends. Broadband is a door opener. You can can connect with any number of resources and they can connect with you.”
The project will provide more access to services and information for local residents and improve the overall quality of life for people living in rural areas. According to a USDA news release, Star Telephone Membership Corporation of Clinton will use ReConnect Program grant funding to deploy a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) broadband network capable of simultaneous transmission rates of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) or greater. The funded service area includes 8,749 households, 19 businesses, 10 educational facilities, and three critical community facilities. Insufficient service is defined as connection speeds of less than 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.
President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to find legislative, regulatory, and policy changes to improve agriculture and prosperity. Later, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue presenting findings, which included 31 recommendations to connect the federal goverment with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities in rural areas.
In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural areas. Perdue announced rules for ReConnect and later, the department received 146 applications between May 31, 2019 and July 12, 2019. According to USDA, $1.4 billion in funding was requested for three ReConnect Program funding products: 100 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations. Applications are being reviewed and will be announced after they’re approved. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in future weeks.
Jeff Shipp, vice president of operations for Star Communications, said projects will take place in the Herring exchange in the northern region of Sampson County, which also loops around the middle portion of Sampson County. The second is the Six Runs area part of county towards Turkey and the third is Harrells, in the southern region. Other projects are scheduled for Bladen County as well.
“We’re very excited about this,” Shipp said. “We’re excited for our members and for our community. We have the lowest density in the entire state in our area, roughly around 3.8 subscribers per mile. We would have to budget $25,000 per mile to put fiber in the ground. That’s why a grant such as this from USDA is so important. We’re also fortunate enough to receive additional funding from the state this year for an area in Bladen County to assist with fiber as well.”
Jeff Nethercutt, executive vice president and general manager for Star Communications, said the expansion of broadband is vital for rural America to compete with much larger cities when it comes to education for primary, secondary and distance learning.
“Broadband is a must to provide those students the resources they need to compete,” Nethercutt said before making comments about farming. “In the areas of agribusiness, which is the actual lifeblood of our local economy, broadband has become essential as farming has become technology driven. In economic development, broadband is an essential element for growth and a means to compete for industry and enhance the quality of life in rural America.”
Nethercutt added that the expansion and availability of broadband is a step towards attracting talented young people to the area.
Robert Hosford, North Carolina state director USDA, said the local project in partnership with Star Communications is the largest grant award from USDA in 2019. He said it’s not only significant for the businesses, but for the thousands of homes the project is going to reach, along with many other places.
“We’re touching this whole community,” Hosford said.
Hosford lives in Raleigh and grew up in rural America, which face several challenges when it comes to technology.
“When my daughter is in downtown Raleigh doing her homework, competing with a kid in Sampson or Bladen County that has to go to a fast food joint to get his or her homework done or their research done, that an inequality,” he said. “We’re hoping to bridge that gap with this type of project.”
He added that it could assist with efforts to make agriculture a $100 billion industry in North Carolina, which is at $94 billion now. Some of those efforts are precision agriculture though satellite farming, drones, and uploading information in the field.
“This is one of many things that we do at USDA Rural Development here in the state of North Carolina,” Hosford said. “But right now, this is the priority, connecting rural communities and making a flat fair table for everyone out there who wants to go to school and compete around the world with agriculture products.”
Congressman David Rouzer spoke about the work that went into ReConnect Program, which also came with funding challenges. He’s really thrilled that a portion of $600 million is coming back to southeastern North Carolina. He added those with Internets are the “haves” and others without are the “have-nots.”
“Quite frankly, if you don’t have that infrastructure and you don’t have that connectivity, it’s very difficult to operate in the 21st century in a global economy,” Rouzer said. “That’s just the fact of the matter. It’s very difficult to attract young people back to the rural communities, even if they’re from a rural community if you don’t have good connectivity.”
Rouzer said this comes with difficulties for businesses, dental practices, and community colleges if they don’t have quality access to the Internet.
“This is really a big, big day in Sampson County,” Rouzer said. “These grants don’t happen that often. This is a big deal. Star Communications and everyone who’ve been involved in the application process for this grant — you should really be proud.”
As a lawmaker, Rouzer said availability and access to broadband is a complaint he often hear from constituents. After Hurricane Matthew, he spoke to farmer during a roundtable discussion said one of his biggest problems was not the storm, but not having access to the Internet on three-quarters of his farm.
“That just underscored for me the importance and the work that we need to do to continue to expand to broadband connectivity here in eastern North Carolina … not just in eastern North Carolina, but all over rural North Carolina and all of rural America.”
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.