More than 83 percent of North Carolina households can sign on for broadband access to the Internet, an increase of 2 percent in one year, according to a report from the e-NC Authority.

However, four counties – including Warren – remain limited to less than 50 percent availability for broadband, the “High-Speed Internet Access in North Carolina: A 100 County Report,” shows.

In an interesting finding, the e-NC also reported that broadband penetration actually dropped in Johnston, Durham and Chatham.

“Penetration is increasing in general,” said Cary Edgar, a spokesperson for e-NC. “However, our primary goal is getting the last critically under-served set of counties greater connectivity. They remain very under-served.”

Twenty-one counties have less than 70 percent broadband availability.

The figures provided by Internet Service providers, phone and cable companies are based on statistics compiled for 2006.

E-NC was formed in 2000 by the General Assembly to help expand broadband access across the state. Although dial-up Internet access was reported in all 100 counties in 2001, 20 counties reported less than 50 percent availability of broadband in 2002.

Despite the increase statewide, e-NC officials expressed frustration that broadband access was not becoming more available at a faster rate. They described the growth as “nominal.”

“Major deployment in urban communities is more-or-less done. What we are now trying to push for is broadband expansion into the most under-served areas of our state, which are often rural and economically disadvantaged,” said Jane Smith Patterson, the executive director of the e-NC Authority. “Dial-up won’t cut it anymore – plain and simple.

“If broadband connectivity levels in this many homes, schools and businesses is so inadequate, we can’t expect companies to thrive and remain competitive or that our rural children will have a chance to learn the latest technologies and Web-based applications,” she added.

Armed with more than $1.2 million in new funding from the General Assembly, e-NC will launch a plan today targeting the counties where access is less than 50 percent. The group will use the funding as incentives to service providers in those areas to invest in the necessary infrastructure for more high-speed lines.

The counties targeted by e-NC are Warren, Jones, Gates and Greene.

“This is the first year we have ever received state moneys for incentives,” Edgar said. “We will issue requests for proposals from service providers on the 14th and hope for the best.”

The funds will be available in 2008.

Since its founding, e-NC has used a variety of funds as incentives to service providers to expand into areas where a strong business case for expansion was lacking. MCNC helped fund the e-NC effort with $30 million in profits that the formerly state-funded entity had derived from the sale of a technology spin-off company.

Helping drive the overall increase statewide was the progress made in several counties, according to Edgar:

• Anson jumped to 91 percent from 78 percent (provider: Windstream Communications)

• Madison increased to 65 percent from 48 percent (Verizon)

• Allegheny improved to 92 percent from 79 percent (Skyline Telephone and Charter Communications)

• Burke jumped to 74 percent from 59 percent (Charter)

• Currituck climbed to 84 percent from 75 percent (Charter)

• Vance soared to 77 percent from 62 percent (Embarq and Time Warner)

• Rockingham improved to 82 percent from 77 percent (Embarq)

Those gains were partially offset by declines in three Triangle-area counties.

• Durham dropped to 91.8 percent from 92.5 percent

• Johnston slipped to 74.7 percent from 75.6 percent

• Chatham fell to 66.8 percent from 67.2 percent

e-NC’s Edgar said the group could not explain the drops other than to speculate that fast growth in those counties outpaced broadband infrastructure.

Wake County’s penetration percentage increased to 94.57 percent from 91.74 percent. (An earlier version of this story had the numbers reversed based on information provided to LTW.)

Stanly County has the greatest broadband penetration at better than 98 percent.

Cabarrus County’s 96-percent availability is the best among counties considered as urban.

E-NC’s statistics do not take into account wireless Internet availability.