RALEIGH — By 2020, every county in North Carolina will have a digital inclusion plan. That’s the goal of a new grant program, Building a New Digital Economy in NC (BAND-NC), rolled out by NC State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI) today.

BAND-NC, which  launched with initial support from Roanoke Electric Cooperative and the North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives, in partnership with the NC Broadband Infrastructure Office (BIO), will provide grants of up to $5,000 to counties to develop plans to increase the percentage of their residents that adopt and are able to use broadband services.

IEI Director Leslie Boney says North Carolina is making progress in ensuring broadband is available to people across the state, but there’s also an “adoption problem.”

“Right now, just 59 percent of people with access to broadband are subscribing to it. And with lower rates of adoption in rural counties and among lower income families, if we don’t plan now to include people digitally, those people and their communities will get further and further behind,” he said.

“By working on this now, we have a chance for North Carolina to lead the country when it comes to internet adoption and taking full advantage of that. If we do that, it’s going to unleash incredible power in our economy.”

Digital inclusion plans will include strategies to increase access to devices and make broadband affordable to more people. They also aim to equip a range of stakeholders with knowledge of how to utilize broadband. The end game: enabling young learners to do homework online and older learners to retrain online, expanding job possibilities through telework, improving access to telehealth services, expanding business markets, improving crop yields and adding efficiency to farm operations, IEI says.

IEI Director Leslie Boney

The BAND-NC announcement came at the end of the Emerging Issues Forum, ReCONNECT to Technological Opportunity, a day-long strategy session held at the McKimmon Center in Raleigh on Monday, encouraging government, business, education, nonprofit and faith planners to begin planning now to take full advantage of high speed internet services.

Data from the NC Broadband Infrastructure Office shows wide disparities in adoption of broadband services, with both a rural-urban and an income divide. Rural households subscribe at lower rates than urban households (as low as 49.7 percent in Graham County and as high as 89.7 percent in Wake County). Households making under $20,000 a year subscribe at a 51.2 percent rate compared to 93.8 percent of those making $75,000 or more a year (see attached for a county-by-county listing of adoption rates).

As part of BAND-NC, the state Broadband Office and IEI will host a series of meetings to assist community leaders in developing and implementing county-level digital inclusion plans. Roanoke Electric’s work will support development of plans in Bertie, Halifax, Hertford, Northampton, Gates, Perquimans and Chowan counties, while North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives will fund three selected county plans from among its 93-county service area.

“As the power provider for rural North Carolina, our state’s electric cooperatives have an important role to play in addressing the state’s digital divide, and we’re proud to support this comprehensive broadband adoption initiative,” said Nelle Hotchkiss, senior vice president and chief operating officer of association services for North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives, in a statement. “BAND-NC will help further bridge our state’s broadband gap by providing rural communities the resource they need to benefit from broadband technologies and the many opportunities they provide.”

Over the next few months, the Institute for Emerging Issues is seeking other investors in BAND-NC, with the goal of making $5,000 grants available across the state to counties developing digital inclusion plans.  Interested counties would submit plans August 6 for review on a competitive basis, with selected plans receiving grants to begin implementing their initial strategies.

ReCONNECT to Technological Opportunity is part of the Institute for Emerging Issues’ three-year initiative, ReCONNECT NC, focusing on helping North Carolina bridge divides across a variety of areas. Earlier forums focused on increasing civic participation, building stronger rural-urban connections and increasing economic opportunity. The next forum, ReCONNECT to Well-being, will take place in Greenville on October 28 and will focus on the root causes of poor health outcomes across the state through new cross-sectoral approaches.