Reaching the Wildcat and Stoney Fork areas

A map of phase two of the proposed broadband strengthening in Watauga County, reaching the Wildcat and Stoney Fork areas, was shown at the Aug. 3 meeting.

BOONE — After a closed portion of its meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 19, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners voted to rescind the contracts for a recently approved multi-million dollar broadband expansion project with Blue Ridge Energy and SkyLine/SkyBest.

According to county attorney Anthony S. di Santi, the decision was based on discrepancies between federal laws regarding funds from the American Recovery Plan and state laws regarding the county’s use of the funds.

“An amendment to the North Carolina General Statues has been introduced and is pending before the N.C. General Assembly in hopes that is adopted so that the county can proceed with its broadband initiative with the American Recovery Plan funds appropriated to the county,” di Santi said in a statement.

According to di Santi, both companies working with the county on the project agreed to the contract being rescinded.

“We’ve been itching, we’re ready to go,” Board of Commissioners Chairman John Welch said. “Blue Ridge and SkyLine are ready and with consultation with them, we all agree it is probably in our best interest at this time to rescind the contract that we entered into and wait for the General Assembly in Raleigh to provide clarification for counties who would like to spend money effectively and expand broadband.”

di Santi noted before the vote that while federal law says the county can move forward, state statutes say otherwise.

“Watauga County has notified us that the broadband project is currently on hold while they work through their state requirements for this type of infrastructure investment,” BRE Chief Technology Officer Brad Shields said in a statement. “While the county rescinded the contract to resolve some legislative questions, Blue Ridge Energy remains committed to this project and others that would help bring high speed internet to our members who lack this critical service.”

Shields had previously presented the contract to the commissioners.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 is a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill signed into law by President Joe Biden in March with the aim to help the country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting recession.

The county received $10,911,724 in ARP funding. In August, Blue Ridge Energy and SkyLine/SkyBest presented a proposal for a $7 million broadband expansion project that would bring broadband internet to more than 1,600 homes in Watauga, the Watauga Democrat previously reported.

When Shields presented the proposal to the commissioners, he noted that the main plan was to get broadband internet access to 90-95 percent of the county through 75 miles of “trunk fiber,” with the more than 1,600 homes being connected by branches, the Watauga Democrat previously reported.

The project would take an estimated three years to complete and would be built in four stages, the first reaching the Triplett and Powder Horn areas, the second reaching the Wildcat and Stoney Fork areas, the third reaching the Blackberry and Sampson areas and the fourth reaching the Howard’s Creek area.

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