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By RICK SMITH, Local Tech Wire editor

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – The Golden LEAF Foundation will back another expansion initiative by MCNC to expand broadband access in North Carolina with a $24 million grant.

The economic development group, which is funded through North Carolina’s share of the national tobacco settlement, announced the grant Thursday. It is contingent upon MCNC receiving an additional $78 million in federal funds.

The proposed additional expansion would take fiber access to 69 counties with 1,300 miles of new fiber and trading or swapping for another 500 miles, according to MCNC Chief Executive Officer Joe Freddoso.

MCNC is seeking additional funding through the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.

In addition to the Golden LEAF pledge, MCNC has secured another $9 million in support, Freddoso said. The $33 million helped MCNC meet a 30 percent “match” criteria as required in the second round of BTOP funding. Among that $9 million is a pledge to let MCNC run fiber through conduit already laid by an economic development partnership in northeastern N.C. Other private sector partners can’ yet be disclosed, Freddoso said.

The proposed additional expansion as outlined in a plan submitted to the federal government last week would take fiber access to 69 counties.

MCNC is seeking additional funding through the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.

"These areas of the state are struggling to transition their economies," said Dan Gerlach, president of Golden LEAF, in a statement. "The Foundation Board of Directors views this initiative as an opportunity to provide essential infrastructure, take advantage of federal matching dollars and invest directly in efforts to grow stronger communities. Access to fiber in these areas will help level the playing field by providing global connectivity for business and educational opportunities. Rural North Carolina cannot be left behind."

A “tremendous” commitment

Freddoso described the Golden LEAF commitment as “tremendous” and said a second phase of the NCREN expansion would make broadband available in areas where private sector investment might not be seen for “generations.”

“We’re really going into places in rural North Carolina with middle-mile infrastructure that a typical private sector business model would not support,” Freddoso said, referring to such factors as sparse populations. He described middle-mile as the “state highway” section of broadband with the Internet as the “interstate” and local access at home and businesses as the “street.”

The plan also calls for NCREN to link broadband directly to nearly 300 community facilities.

“One of the unique things about round two in the federal project is that recipients are required to build direct fiber to community anchor institutions,” Freddoso explained. “Those are defined as K-12 schools, community colleges, public libraries, and public safety and public health facilities.

“These tend to be places where people gather in community and where they need broadband that is robust enough for such services as telemedicine and distance education.”

MCNC also has secured commitments from private sector partners who would lease fiber installed by MCNC in order to provide consumer and business Internet access.

“We will not get into consumer or business services,” Freddoso said.

The 69 counties that would be linked in the expanded NCREN would be:

Alleghany, Anson, Ashe, Avery, Beaufort, Bertie, Brunswick, Buncombe, Cabarrus, Caldwell, Camden, Carteret, Caswell, Chatham, Chowan, Cleveland, Columbus, Craven, Cumberland, Currituck

And: Dare, Edgecombe, Franklin, Gaston, Gates, Graham, Granville, Halifax, Harnett, Haywood, Henderson, Hertford, Hyde, Jackson, Lee, Lincoln, Madison, Martin, McDowell, Mecklenburg, Mitchell, Moore, Nash, New Hanover, Northampton, Onslow, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Person, Pitt, Polk

And: Richmond, Robeson, Rockingham, Rutherford, Scotland, Stokes, Surry, Swain, Transylvania, Tyrrell, Union, Vance, Wake, Warren, Washington, Watauga, Wilson, and Yancey

Golden LEAF and MCNC estimate that that project would create some 1,000 jobs for construction and another 10 to 12 permanent jobs for maintenance of the network.

First-round funding

In January, MCNC won funding to expand NCREN by 494 miles and reach 37 more counties. Additional fiber-optic rings will be built to boost capacity. Upon completion, NCREN will stretch more than 1,100 miles.

MCNC and its partners will contribute $11.7 million in matching funds and in-kind services to the project.

Working with private sector partner FRC/PalmettoNet, a provider of fiber network services in the Carolinas, MCNC is seeking the money to add some 600 miles of fiber-optic cable to enable high-speed Internet access in many of North Carolina’s counties that have limited or no access.

MCNC pledged $4 million from its endowment, as well as $3 million in equipment it has already purchased for network expansion, toward the effort. FRC/PalmettoNet also has said it will invest $4 million.

The federal grant guidelines call for a 20 percent match of any funding.