RALEIGH— The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the digital divide across North Carolina, but the Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI) is working to address that.

Today, IEI, a non-partisan public policy organization based out of NC State University, has named its first round of grant recipients for Building a New Digital Economy in NC (BAND-NC).

It includes six projects in 11 counties, with each county receiving a $5,000 grant to help bridge the “digital divide” in their communities — the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not.

The list of counties include:

  • Alamance, Guilford and Forsyth Counties (Piedmont Triad Regional Council)
  • Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania Counties (Land of Sky Regional Council)
  • Carteret County (Carteret County Economic Development Foundation, Inc.)
  • Craven County (Peletah Ministries)
  • McDowell County (Connect McDowell)
  • Watauga County (Watauga County Schools)

BAND-NC is a grant program designed to increase the number of people with the internet in their homes, with the goal of making the state “first in digital inclusion.”

The effort is in partnership with the NC Broadband Infrastructure Office (BIO), the John M. Belk Endowment, the Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation, Roanoke Electric Cooperative and the North Carolina Electric Cooperatives.

BAND-NC is designed to support $5,000 “rapid response community innovation grants” this summer, a series of workshops led by IEI and BIO to help communities develop “digital inclusion plans” this fall, and another round of $5,000 “implementation” grants in 2021.

The digital divide isn’t a new concept. It has long been an issue in rural communities with less access to connectivity.

Despite the fact that around 94.8 percent of North Carolinians have access to high-speed internet, only 59.4 percent of households adopt it, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

“It’s pretty low. That’s a good 40 percent of the population that has access but is still not adopting,” said Amy Huffman, North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s digital equity and digital inclusion program manager, last October.

However, with the coronavirus outbreak, current remote conditions are now affecting school and work in both rural and urban areas — and there’s been an immediate need for a widespread solution.

“The digital divide got to me when I realized that children in my community wouldn’t be able to do their homework. When COVID-19 started, there was a moment where officials were considering moving towards just a digital textbook. However, the number of people in my community that didn’t have Internet was frustrating — it was going to leave those children without an opportunity, those in cycles of poverty, to struggle that much more to do what they’re required to do,” said Sara Nichols, regional planner at Land of Sky Regional Council, a planning and development organization that provides technical aid to local governments, in a recent WRAL article.

“In the COVID environment, we’re now living in that reality for everyone and not just for those in rural communities. We’ve had a critical mass of people who are focusing on this issue of access, because all of the sudden, a lot of the places that people went to connect aren’t open for them anymore.”

Digital divide persists in NC despite broadband availability; task force seeks to drive up usage