Op-Ed: Let’s Build Up Rural Broadband Like NC Once Built Its Highways

Rural North Carolina has pockets where high-speed internet is not available, leaving those residents behind. (Stock image via Shutterstock.)

By Terry Brown

August 18, 2020

This Charlotte attorney and NC House candidate wants to see more households connected to the Internet.

In the 1950’s, North Carolina Gov. Kerr Scott laid down 15,000 miles of new roads in an effort to connect North Carolina’s rural areas to its uUrban centers.

Former Gov. Jim Hunt, then just a child, recounted that at the time “the biggest thing that could happen in your life is to get a paved road,” he said, according to longtime NC political reporter Rob Christensen in his book, The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics. That $200 million farm-to-market program is credited with helping North Carolina grow into the state it is today. While the prospect of a paved road isn’t as revolutionary in 2020 as it was 70 years ago, we still have the ability to make transformational infrastructure improvements, this time in the form of universal high-speed internet access. 

In our always-connected digital society, high-speed internet access joins roads, as a crucial component of modern infrastructure. Unlike other vital infrastructure, our access to high-speed broadband internet isn’t guaranteed. Further, the cost of privatized high-speed internet is cost-prohibitive for many in our state and completely inaccessible to others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed just how reliant our society is on the internet. It is no longer a superfluous frill, primarily used for binge watching. With schools moving to remote learning, employees working from home, and even seniors attending doctor’s appointments virtually, there has never been a moment in the brief history of the internet when it has been more pivotal. The time is now to expand access to high speed broadband internet through smart policy that will make our state stronger. 

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In North Carolina, there are nearly 200,000 households with students had no internet access, according to an April NC Policy Watch report. While Mecklenburg County fairs better than most of our neighbors to the east, an estimated 300,000 Charlotte students still don’t have access to a computer with Internet access or a device, according to a recent WFAE report. The majority are in areas where Black and brown residents are disproportionately affected. In a normal school year, this is a hindrance to achieving a student’s full potential. But in a pandemic a lack of internet access amounts to an educational stalemate — one that will set us back more than just the months we stand to lose from COVID-19. 

Growing up as the son of two lifelong public-school educators in Cumberland County, I took a sense of second-hand pride knowing that our state was the “education state.” Now thanks to the destruction and defunding the Republican-led NC General Assembly has wrought over the past 10 years, we are no longer the education state.

Lack of internet access is a key contributor to disparities in education and attainment and health outcomes for low-income and rural residents. Broadband internet  access will change the outcomes for thousands of North Carolinians across the Tar Heel state. Allowing our students to better compete with their national and international peers and to truly blossom within their education. 

High-speed internet is the key infrastructure challenge of our era. Not only will our schools benefit, more efficient roads, more usable transit, and more advanced connectivity will make North Carolina a better place to live, work, and start a family. The future of education, business, and healthcare hinges on high speed internet access. 

If Governor Scott can pave 15,000 miles of tar across North Carolina in the 1950s we can connect every home to the Internet today. It’s too important to wait.

Editor’s note: This commentary has changed from the original to reflect the NC General Assembly has been controlled by Republicans since 2010.


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