RALEIGH – The association representing North Carolina’s cities and towns says new legislation is needed to develop partnerships between local governments and private broadband providers so areas still lacking high-speed internet are covered.

The North Carolina League of Municipalities released a report Wednesday recommending changes to get more fiber-optic cable installed in the state, particularly rural areas.

“Broadband is crucial 21st century infrastructure, no different than water and sewer, electricity and roads,” said NCLM President Michael Lazzara. “It is critical that everyone have access to it, and that businesses in towns and cities of all sizes have access to the internet speeds that they require to conduct commerce across the country and around the globe.”

The report says at least 637,000 people lack broadband-speed internet, and the private sector won’t be able to fill coverage gaps because of population densities too low to attract capital. The paper says commerce, health care, education and agriculture are hurt because of it.

Among recommended changes in the report:

  • Clarify and enhance local governments’ authority to raise and spend money for broadband infrastructure and lease that infrastructure to private and non-profit entities that can then operate retail networks.
  • The state create a competitive grant fund, similar to those adopted in other states, within the N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office that would appropriate dollars to public and private entities for broadband projects.
  • Mandating installation of underground conduit to house fiber optic cables each time state entities, such as the Department of Transportation and the N.C. Railroad, undertake projects that require digging along public rights-of-way, allowing that conduit to be used in the future by internet service providers.
  • Instituting “dig once” policies that require utility providers, when undertaking a project in a right-of-way, to coordinate with local governments so that conduit and fiber can be installed as other infrastructure is built or updated.
  • Creating digital literacy programs and providing incentives to low-income customers to improve adoption rates and help drive more investment by internet service providers of all types.

The report, Leaping the Digital Divide: Encouraging Policies and Partnerships to Improve Broadband Access Across North Carolina, is available online.

“This report makes clear that a flexible approach is required to ensure the kind of broadband access that will meet North Carolina’s needs and allow all communities to thrive economically,” said NCLM Legislative Counsel Erin Wynia, who is co-author of the report.

“Different communities have different needs and different challenges. State policy must encourage flexible approaches to prevent areas of our state from being left behind,.”