Charlotte, NC
6:20 am8:38 pm EDT
July 15, 2024 5:58 am

by Lisa Sorg, NC Newsline
January 19, 2024

The eternally spinning beach ball. The bottomless hourglass. A frozen computer screen.

A lethargic internet connection is not merely an aggravation. It can deepen the socio-economic divide, foreclosing on educational and job opportunities — even quality health care — for underserved communities.

President Joe Biden spoke at Abbotts Creek Community Center in Raleigh Thursday to tout his administration’s investments in high-speed internet for the hardest-to-reach areas of the state. This includes another $82 million in the American Rescue Plan to fund Gov. Roy Cooper’s Stop-Gap Solutions Program. Roughly 16,000 homes and businesses will be connected to the service. Previous federal funding has helped 880,000 North Carolina households afford broadband, with subsidies of about $30 a month.

Biden compared his broadband initiative to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 Rural Electrification Act, which extended electricity to rural areas. “Electricity become an essential part of modern life. Pretty much everyone had access to it was determined that no American should be left behind no matter where they live, whether in a big city or rural area,” Biden said, addressing a crowd of roughly 200 party loyalists, union workers and state lawmakers. “I made the same determination about affordable, high-speed internet. It isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s an absolute necessity.”

The pandemic revealed the extent of the state’s digital divide. When classes were held remotely, K-12 students who didn’t have access to broadband, or even a computer, were disadvantaged compared to their better-wired peers. The same continues to hold true for people who would like to work remotely — or must, because of childcare obligations, health concerns or disabilities. They might not work at all. Broadband is crucial for telehealth, in which people can attend their doctor’s appointments online, and even agriculture, where farm offices need the service to communicate with vendors.

State data from 2021 show that broadband service is far from a given:

Twelve percent of North Carolinians lack internet service; 8% don’t have access to a home computer.About a third of North Carolinians don’t have broadband internet.Two-thirds of those who don’t have broadband said the service wasn’t available in their area.Even in areas where broadband is available, the cost can hamper adoption rates. Only 30% of households with children have that form of high-speed internet. This map shows broadband availability, as of 2021. Counties shaded in red and orange have the lowest rates; counties in blue have the highest. (NC DIT Broadband Infrastructure Office)

By the end of 2026, Biden said more than 300,000 homes and businesses in North Carolina will be connected to high-speed internet, funded by $1 billion American Rescue Plan money. All of North Carolina would have the service by the end of 2029, he said.

The nationwide push to extend fiber-optic cable — the backbone of broadband — to all households and businesses has created jobs in North Carolina. For example, factories in Hickory are responsible for producing 40% of the country’s fiber-optic cable. This map shows the rate of broadband adoption. Rural and economically disadvantaged counties have low adoption rates because of the cost, which can run more than $100 a month. (NC DIT Broadband Infrastructure Office)

The president’s stop in North Carolina illustrates the importance of the state to his reelection prospects. Former President Obama narrowly won the state in 2008, but was edged out by Mitt Romney in 2012. In 2020, Donald Trump narrowly defeated Biden in North Carolina by just over a percentage point. Many of the very counties that could benefit from high-speed internet also lean Republican. This map shows the 2020 presidential election results in North Carolina by county. Red and pink: Trump; Blue and light blue: Biden – Source: Wikipedia

Within his administration, Gov. Cooper established the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy to address the internet divide. “We’re helping people get the devices, the training and the help they need to afford high speed internet. And that is why we also need Congress to reauthorize the affordable connectivity program.  We’re going to continue to work feverishly to get more people online,” Cooper said.  “Whether you’re a rural, small business owner of veterans trying to connect with health care, a student trying to get an assignment on access to the internet is key to success in the 21st century. Now, instead of investing tens of millions of dollars, we’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars, soon to be billions of dollars, in high-speed internet in North Carolina.”

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