Opinion

Opinion

LESLIE BONEY: If we build it, will they come?

Posted February 7, 2020 5:00 a.m. EST
Updated February 7, 2020 3:55 p.m. EST

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Leslie Boney is the director of the Institute for Emerging Issues, which will be focusing on digital inclusion at its upcoming Emerging Issues Forum, Reconnect to Technological Opportunity, in Raleigh Feb. 10.


A new $20 billion federal program promises to dramatically increase the ability of rural communities to access high speed internet services. Much of the Federal Communications Commission money seeks to encourage access providers to extend services to currently unserved rural areas. If North Carolina is successful in getting its share of the funds, as many as 169,000 households could gain access.

The program, along with federal investments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Reconnect Pilot Program and the Appalachian Regional Commission Power Initiative together with statewide efforts such as the GREAT program, means we are closer to the day when every North Carolinian will have access to high speed internet services.

The transformative power of high speed services won’t happen unless we answer a critical question: If we build it, will they come?

Now the evidence is mixed. The latest figures from the state Broadband Infrastructure Office show only 59 % of North Carolina households are choosing to subscribe to a broadband internet service. The numbers are even lower in rural communities and among lower-income residents of central cities.

There are significant consequences to ignoring the expansion of broadband in rural and urban areas. Many basic activities and functions of life today require online access. School students come home and can’t do their homework; adults can’t apply for jobs or take courses online that would enable them to move up. In rural areas where there are few if any local health care facilities, residents can’t take advantage of telehealth and telepsychiatry services.

One recent study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Amazon estimates rural small businesses in North Carolina could add $1.9 billion to their local economies if they were able to unlock their full digital potential.  Businesses cite poor quality service, lack of tech-savvy workers and lack of incentive programs as barriers to more effective use of technology.  N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences notes farmers could cut water and energy costs and gain 1.75% yield increases by using data-enabled techniques.

The barriers to higher broadband adoption rates may be surprising. Some 20% of households still don’t have access to a desktop or laptop computer (mobile phones can overcome some of barriers, but it is hard to apply for jobs on the phone and data limits rule out many of the services). Others find the cost of broadband too high. Still others, from individuals to government workers to business owners, need training on how to take full advantage of the possibilities of broadband. We need to answer the question: “How is this going to make my life better?” Then we need to be able to help people do it.

There are a few communities that are starting to address this challenge with the same energy as we are focusing on our infrastructure efforts. At our upcoming meeting, ReCONNECT to Technological Opportunity, Feb. 10 in Raleigh, groups in Charlotte and Durham will share the promising first steps they are taking to develop strategies for “digital inclusion,” in currently neglected urban communities. Still others in Wilkes, Wilson and the Asheville region will outline ideas for how to help those not participating overcome challenges and take advantage of potential opportunities.

We can’t wait till universal broadband access magically appears to begin figuring out what we are going to do with it and how to make sure that all North Carolinians benefit. There’s a rising tide of internet capacity in our state. We need to make sure everyone knows how to get in the boat.


NOTE: This column was updated to provide additional information concerning the U.S. Chamber of Commerce/Amazon study.

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