RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – A new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts examines in detail North Carolina’s efforts to expand broadband access across the state.

The “key takeaway” about North Carolina’s efforts, the report says, is: “State broadband plans should articulate a vision and clear, actionable recommendations to achieve goals.”

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Here’s the report’s overview of North Carolina efforts:

“In 2015, North Carolina’s Legislature tasked its Broadband Infrastructure Office (BIO), within the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, with developing a state broadband plan.101 It did so after surveying more than 3,500 local government leaders, holding focus groups, and meeting stakeholders from different sectors and parts of the state.

“The result, “Connecting North Carolina,” incorporates a variety of perspectives on North Carolina’s broadband challenges and includes recommendations for how the state can encourage broadband deployment and adoption, and leverage broadband in other policy areas.

“Recommendations in the plan have played a key role in guiding the state’s broadband activities, including the focus on the ‘homework gap,’ creation of the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grant program, and provision of technical assistance activities.

“Following a recommendation in the plan, BIO conducted a survey in 2016 to better understand the homework gap across North Carolina’s school districts between students with home internet access and those without.

“Responding to a 2019 executive order, it recommended that a grant program be created to close the gap.105Additionally, through an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant, BIO and the North Carolina State Library are partnering with public libraries to lend Wi-Fi hot spots to students who lack internet service at home and provide digital literacy training to students and their parents.

“Responding to another recommendation in the plan, the Legislature established the GREAT broadband grant program in 2018 to expand access to broadband infrastructure to places that lack it, allocating $10 million for its first year and $15 million for its second year. The program makes grants to broadband providers to build last-mile infrastructure to unserved areas in counties lacking access at speeds of 10 Mbps/1 Mbps.

“And finally, the state broadband plan recommended ‘assistance to communities, counties, and regions to support public-private partnerships.’

“To achieve this, BIO has a team of four technical assistance experts who work across North Carolina to help communities prepare for broadband projects, assisting them with planning and deployment.

“The program’s mission ‘is to work with all counties in our region, particularly rural counties, to help them position themselves in the best way they can to attract growth from current providers and from new providers,’ said Jim Corrin, one of BIO’s technical assistance staff members.

“The technical assistance team provides counties, municipalities, and citizen groups a variety of services, which include helping communities conduct surveys, gather speed test data, engage and educate stakeholders, facilitate conversations with providers, and inventory existing assets available to help providers bring broadband access.

“The technical assistance efforts make use of a ‘Community Broadband Planning Playbook,’ developed in partnership with the Appalachian Regional Commission,110 that includes practical information to guide communities through the process of improving broadband service.

“Communities have found the technical assistance teams to be an important resource that is responsive to community needs and provides necessary and neutral expertise.

“You can call him on his cellphone,” Sarah Thompson, executive director of the Southwestern Commission, a regional council of governments, said of her region’s technical assistance representative. “We’re not alone. We have a friend and a colleague who’s at the state helping us every step of the way.”