NC State's Institute for Emerging Issues launching a grant to help bridge digital divide

The digital divide has been emphasized during the COVID-19 pandemic as the world shifts to an even heavier reliance on connectivity. The Institute for Emerging Issues is launching a grant to help foster digital inclusion and make sure that communities aren't getting left behind.

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

It's no secret that we rely on the Internet for almost everything — work, school, health care, entertainment, paying bills and more. In this new era of social distancing and remote everything, our dependence on digital connectivity has only grown.

The impact of COVID-19 is being felt in almost every area of daily life and is also drawing attention to the digital divide, a national issue in both rural and urban communities that affects approximately one million North Carolinians.

The digital divide refers to the chasm separating those who have reliable Internet and adequate devices to use it and those who do not. While the digital divide is not a new problem, the increased reliance on devices and connectivity as the world has shifted amidst the coronavirus pandemic has emphasized the issue.

The solution to this digital divide? Digital inclusion.

"Digital inclusion refers to three specific things. First, it requires access to affordable, high-speed Internet. Second, it means access to a device that meets your needs — so typically that's a computer or laptop. Smartphones aren't always meeting your needs. Thirdly, it refers to digital literacy or skills so that you can properly use the Internet or device that you have," said Maggie Woods, policy and program manager for the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University.

IEI is a university-based, non-partisan public policy organization dedicated to enhancing the long-term prosperity of North Carolina and its citizens through civic partnerships and engagement. In February 2020, IEI held a forum on technological opportunity to help champion the issue of digital inclusion.

"We felt that digital inclusion hadn't gotten enough attention across the state and wanted to push the issue of the digital divide forward into the public light," said Woods. "As a result, we developed BAND-NC, a grant program designed to help communities implement digital inclusion projects in their county."

BAND-NC (Building a New Digital Economy in NC) seeks to equip counties to build more digitally equitable communities. It includes two grant cycles, with some technical assistance programming this fall.

This summer BAND-NC is funding thirty $5,000 rapid response grants for communities to develop and implement digital inclusion projects to meet immediate needs as a response to the effects of COVID-19. Many school children, parents, and communities were thrown into a lurch when places they relied on for Internet and devices, such as schools and libraries, closed down due to the pandemic.

Later this fall BAND-NC will partner with the Broadband Infrastructure Office (Broadband IO) of the NC Department of Information Technology to walk communities through the process of building a digital inclusion plan. The program intends to make available another thirty $5,000 grants to communities to implement those plans in the spring of 2021.

The grants incentivize communities to build digital inclusion plans and are available to meet unmet community needs such as access to the Internet, a device, and the knowhow to use it. Nonprofits, government institutions, schools/colleges and universities, and churches are eligible to apply for a BAND-NC grant; however, all applicants must apply on behalf of a county.

"Ultimately our vision is to make North Carolina the first state in the nation where every county has a digital inclusion plan in place. So they're not just thinking about building out infrastructure for broadband, but they're also thinking about how that infrastructure can create digitally inclusive communities," said Woods. "If you don't have Internet or a device, you can't do your homework, you can't work remotely if that's a possibility for you, you can't apply for unemployment if you've lost your job, you can't access telehealth."

Woods also highlighted the feelings of isolation that come with not being able to digitally connect with people during this period of quarantine.

"This digital divide issue is interwoven into so many of the inequities in our society and is just being highlighted during this time of real need," she finished. "We need to ensure that people are included digitally and in our society."

Amy Huffman, research and policy specialist for the Broadband IO, said that she was impressed with the IEI forum in February where she served on the advisory committee. Broadband IO will be hosting the workshops in the fall, and Huffman is currently working on a "how-to" template that will serve as a guide to build digital inclusion plans.

"I was asked if communities had digital inclusion plans and I explained that it was actually pretty rare," said Huffman. "I then explained that, historically, there hasn't been funding for this type of work — there's funding for extending broadband access, there's funding for all kinds of ancillary things — but not this specifically. There's no direct federal or state funding for digital inclusion. In North Carolina, there's actually not any city right now that has any digital inclusion funding, so there's a big need."

It's important to emphasize that digital inclusion, as Huffman hinted, is more than just the expansion of broadband. While expansion is certainly an important component, inclusion refers to closing all barriers to Internet usage which include: access and availability of broadband, affordability of service or technology, adequate devices, and digital literacy.

"Digital inclusion works to close all those barriers — it's the programs, policies and tools that we use to create a digitally equitable state," said Huffman. "And in a digitally equitable state, ideally everyone would have access to these technologies, to broadband, to computers, to the skills that they need to use it effectively to actually impact their lives in a meaningful way."

Jeffrey R. Sural, director of Broadband IO, stressed that Internet access is associated with income, educational opportunities, and civic engagement opportunities and that the digital divide prevents people from accessing these things.

"The Internet enhances opportunities for small businesses. It opens up educational opportunities for students, particularly in rural areas. It encourages civic engagement. It creates access to health care providers that might not be readily available in the community. And it creates access to government services," he said. "We have seen research done at the national level, and we also have some research here at the state level, that shows that when folks are using the Internet, that it increases and enhances their position in life."

Added Huffman, "If we don't close the digital divide, then people aren't going to receive the benefits that are available to them. Whether that's health care, education, or workforce. The digital divide is not new. It long preceded COVID-19, but COVID-19 has shown a glaring light on it. And how big, and vast, and how much it has permeated our society and really caused a lot of inequities."

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