BEV PERDUE: Close North Carolina's digital divide now

Posted August 28, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated August 28, 2020 9:15 a.m. EDT

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.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Former Gov. Bev Perdue is the founder of digiLEARN, a national nonprofit dedicated to accelerating digital learning for all ages with a goal of increasing personal learning options for students and expanding opportunities for teachers.

Technology is no longer an extra but an essential, as fundamental as electricity or water for our schools, homes and businesses. As 1.1 million North Carolina K-12 students begin fully remote or blended learning as a result of COVID-19, it is time to invest in technology infrastructure to close the digital divide, stop COVID slide and encourage full economic recovery for our state.

North Carolina has always been a leader in connecting our residents to broadband. Two years ago, we became the first state in the country to connect every public K-12 classroom to high-speed broadband when the state paid for unlimited broadband in our schools.

Now, I call on state leaders and our national leaders in Congress to continue the state’s leadership by investing in technology infrastructure, including broadband access for all North Carolinians.

The digital divide – what it is and how it’s affecting families in the COVID-era

Ten percent of all North Carolinians do not have broadband access in their homes. Researchers at Duke University recently estimated that approximately 230,000 K-12 students do not have internet access and another 169,000 do not have devices. Children in lower-income households, especially Black and Hispanic households, are significantly less likely to have a high-speed internet connection at home. More than one-third of households with children ages six to 17, and an annual income below $30,000 a year, do not have broadband at home compared with just six percent of such households earning $75,000 or more a year.

This is a travesty as more than 70 percent of our state’s public school students and their teachers attempt full remote or blended learning now and for the foreseeable future.

Even before COVID-19, the digital divide created a homework gap, making it more challenging for students without high-speed access to complete school work at home. That gap has widened into a dangerous learning gap that will set some students back months, if not years, if we do not course correct now.

Improving broadband access in homes, businesses and communities will also support economic recovery, helping unemployed people find jobs faster and earn more income while also encouraging more spending. In fact, according to Deloitte, the digital divide costs the U.S. over $130 million a day in economic activity.

Gov. Roy Cooper last week awarded $12 million in grants to 11 rural counties to expand broadband access to more than 8,000 families along with businesses, community institutions and farms in these communities.

This is a step. But it’s time to do more. All North Carolinians deserve sustainable, affordable broadband where they live, work, and go to school.

We cannot lose sight of the real value of education as an investment we must make as a nation to develop each child to his or her full potential, no matter their circumstances, and to ensure economic viability for our state. Other states, such as Alabama and Arizona, have invested hundreds of millions to close their own digital divides. It’s time for North Carolina and all states to pull together all the stakeholders, including providers, and make the same commitment to solve this problem.

And states can’t do it alone. I encourage national leaders to support broadband and technology investments in the next round of federal economic stimulus as well. Because after the COVID-19 crisis ends, when we’ve navigated our way through to a new normal, investment in technology infrastructure and funding for schools that includes support for teachers to successfully incorporate blended learning into classroom practice will be vital not only to support schools, but to support a full economic recovery, including workforce training, telehealth care, and other needs essential to how we live and work.

Technological infrastructure is critical and should be treated like the public utility it is. It’s time to invest in technology, stop COVID Slide, encourage economic recovery, and close our digital divide—for good.

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