Pushing policy forward amid a pandemic - local legislators working to create digital inclusion for citizens across the state

Though it existed before the pandemic, the state's digital divide is in the spotlight as the reliance on connectivity dramatically increases. Local policymakers and organizations are working to create digital inclusion for those who do not have access to the Internet or devices and bridge the widening divide.

Posted Updated
Latisha Catchatoorian
, WRAL Digital Solutions
This article was written for our sponsor, Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University.

The prevalence and persistence of COVID-19 has forced many businesses to shutter operations, but for other people like healthcare professionals, essential workers, and legislators there is much work to be done during these unprecedented times.

As the country continues to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, local and national lawmakers are trying to ensure that citizens have what they need when it comes to healthcare, food, and other necessities. One of these necessities is Internet access.

"The Internet today is a necessity, and America’s smaller towns and communities are in trouble if their people can’t get online. But more than one-quarter of the rural population and almost one-third of those on tribal lands can’t access minimum-speed broadband," opined an August 2019 article from the Washington Post.

While broadband access was once considered a luxury in the early 1990s, it’s now considered an essential on par with water and electricity, especially given the current climate. People rely on the Internet everyday for not only communication, but access to education, healthcare, and employment. The reliance on the Internet for these things has only increased as people have been forced to quarantine and places of work and business have closed their physical doors.

"Internet is essential to function, it’s no longer just a luxury to have," said N.C. Representative Josh Dobson. "It's essential. It's crucial. It's crucial for healthcare, it's crucial for the school systems."

However, virtual access isn’t something that is easily obtained by all, and this lack of access is often included in something that is referred to as the digital divide — the chasm between those who have access to reliable broadband, adequate devices that can leverage connectivity, and the know-how to use it and those who do not.

"For today's school children, for example, the Internet is vital and necessary," said Senator Jay Chaudhuri of the N.C. Senate. "As a father to two young children, I see the importance of having a good laptop and access to high-speed WiFi. Unfortunately, many of our children fall on the wrong side of the digital divide. According to a Wake County Public School Survey, 28,000 children need some type of learning device and 10,000 need WiFi hotspots."

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the issue. The N.C. Department of Information Technology estimates that 261,000 households don't have any access to high speed Internet and 1.6 million households aren't signing up for service. One of the major reasons people may not sign up for Internet service is because they can’t afford it. Dobson pointed out that these numbers could even be underestimated due to inaccurate data measurements and reporting.

"I don't have a definitive answer for how we do this, but we've got to find a way to get more concrete, accurate data so we can truly measure the depth of the problem," he said.

And what was once considered more of a rural issue, has popped up in urban communities too as people who relied on places like coffee shops, schools and libraries for public WiFi are currently closed.

In response to this growing problem, the N.C. General Assembly allocated $9 million to rural broadband and $30 million to K-12 public schools to purchase devices as part of its pandemic relief package. In Wake County, the school district distributed 28,000 laptops and 10,000 Internet access hotspots.

"Our state effort is a good start, but we need a lot more," said Chaudhuri.

Dobson agrees and said he believes that the state is not moving the needle fast enough and has been working vigorously to get the N.C. Fiber Act across the finish line.

"The N.C. Fiber Act was the number one priority for the N.C. League of Municipalities and the Association of County Commissioners. The Act will give any councils and boards of commissioners more autonomy and flexibility to build out fiber infrastructure and then partner with a private provider to bring high speed Internet to underserved areas," said Dobson. "You shouldn't be penalized in North Carolina just because you happen to live in one region of the state or another that does not have that access to high speed Internet."

"When I go into a McDonald's and see kids doing their homework there because they don't have access to it at home — not because their parents can't afford it, but because it's not available in their neighborhoods, that's unacceptable to me," continued Dobson.

While policymakers like Chaudhuri and Dobson are working to support and enact legislation that advances digital inclusion, the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University is also working to bridge the digital divide.

The university-based, non-partisan public policy organization is dedicated to enhancing the long-term prosperity of North Carolina and its citizens through civic partnerships and engagement. One of the efforts IEI heavily champions is that of digital inclusion. As a response to the digital divide, it recently launched a grant program called BAND-NC (Building a New Digital Economy in N.C.), which seeks to equip counties to build more digitally equitable communities.

"IEI remains a leader in the area of bridging the digital divide," said Chaudhuri. "They've been proactive with policymakers, including the General Assembly, in seeking additional feedback as they launch their grant program."

BAND-NC is funding thirty $5,000 rapid response grants for communities to develop and implement digital inclusion projects this summer to meet immediate needs as a response to the effects of COVID-19. Later this fall, BAND-NC will partner with the Broadband Infrastructure Office (Broadband IO) of the N.C. Department of Information Technology to walk communities through the process of building a digital inclusion plan. In the spring of 2021, the program intends to make available another thirty $5,000 grants to communities to implement those plans.

Dobson thinks the work IEI is doing is "wonderful" and wants more people to be aware of the digital divide issues North Carolinians are facing. He acknowledged that it is a complex problem with no silver bullets to fix it, but every effort to advance solutions is appreciated and there is a bipartisan commitment to doing so.

Added Chaudhuri, "As our government works to contain the coronavirus, a priority we must address head-on is the digital divide — we need to make it a state priority. We must do so for our school children and our communities."

This article was written for our sponsor, Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University.