RALEIGH – Broadband was the word of the day at the North Carolina Rural Center’s Rural Day. More than 600 state and local leaders and community advocates gathered in downtown Raleigh yesterday to discuss broadband, as well as health and small business development as priorities for growth and success in the state’s rural areas.

“One of the most important issues we have related to infrastructure is to make sure everyone across the state has access to high speed broadband,” said Gov. Roy Cooper, who kicked off the event. “We need to force this to happen across the state.”

Last year, North Carolina was the first state to achieve high-speed broadband access in all public schools through the School Connectivity Initiative.  However, it is not enough, say leaders, as broadband access across communities is still lacking, putting rural communities at a disadvantage in areas ranging from education and healthy living to business development and public safety.

Understanding broadband access

One of the keys to expanding broadband access is identifying areas that lack the service. This can often be a challenge as internet service providers are the ones reporting where broadband is available.

However, availability does not mean an area is being served, said Mignon Clyburn who served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from 2009 until 2018.

Mignon Clyburn

“We need to institute less burdensome testing to see where broadband is,” she said. “If the [internet service provider] has the ability to serve, the area is considered served. We need to be more honest with our approach. The number needs to be more reflective of what is happening on the ground.”

The problem, Clyburn pointed out, is that inaccurate reporting can negatively impact a community’s ability to qualify for federal funding.

Katherine Bates, manager of state and local partnerships for the National Telecommunications and information Administration’s (NTIA) BroadbandUSA program, works closely with state and local governments to increase broadband access. The organization then advises the White House on telecommunications policy.

“Broadband mapping is an issue,” said Bates. “This is why we are partnering with North Carolina and other states to give policy makers a deeper understanding of which parts of the country are lacking broadband access.”

Why broadband is important

According to the Rural Center, past public conversations have framed broadband as a commodity for personal or recreational use when, in fact, it can determine a community’s success in a global economy.

Patrick Woodie

“Broadband is essential infrastructure in the 21st century,” said Rural Center President Patrick Woodie.

Clyburn agrees.

“Connectivity improves our bottom line,” she said. “It completely determines when and how medical care takes place. It is breaking down barriers for students in Cumberland County who are wanting to learn Calculus but do not have a teacher on campus.”

Connectivity, however, is not enough, download speed is also important.

“Farmers are using drone technology to determine how to fertilize a field and can use it to manage the crops and production of the crops,” said Woodie. “If you don’t have the speed and capacity to support the apps and technology, it puts you at a real disadvantage.”

Ensuring access

How do communities ensure they have the access they need? The Rural Center believes the state can make policy decisions to drive competition among existing and potential internet service providers that will improve access, affordability and adoption of internet services in rural areas.

The Rural Center’s solutions are:

  • Expand the Great Program which set aside $10 million in grant money for providers and cooperatives that deliver broadband to under-served areas. The center is asking the state to expand the program to $30 million per year.
  • Clarify the role of local governments in public-private partnerships designed to expand broadband access.
  • Implement a state-wide dig-once policy to coordinate efforts among state and local offices to reduces costs incurred by installing infrastructure.
  • Explore an internet adoption initiative to fund digital literacy programs, incentivize ISPs to offer low-cost options in targeted areas and options for vouchers for residents in underserved areas.

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