‘This should not be a partisan issue’: The political tug-of-war over rural NC broadband internet gaps

‘This should not be a partisan issue’: The political tug-of-war over rural NC broadband internet gaps

In January, President Joe Biden visited Raleigh to talk broadband internet with Gov. Roy Cooper. Republicans in Congress blocked an affordable connectivity program that helped 900,000 North Carolinians get online. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

By Sophie Boudreau

July 12, 2024

State and federal leaders say they’re making progress extending access into NC broadband internet gaps—mostly because of Biden infrastructure funding—but the Republican closure of an affordable broadband program for lower-income people threatens to dampen progress.

Claire Stone considers her family “blessed” to have internet access through HughesNet. But in rural Rockingham County, even the maximum coverage plan provides minimal connectivity.  

The service is throttled or limited frequently, and we lose it with bad weather of any kind,” said Stone, a retired state employee who now works part-time as a substitute teacher. “We can do most basic tasks without difficulty, but we can’t watch or participate in Zoom or Teams from our home. When I need to watch, and especially when I have to participate in a class, I go to a library or a business with Wi-Fi.”

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Stone continued, “I can tell you that I have to leave home to do anything.”

Poor connection means no access to telehealth or job training services

Stone’s story is a familiar one for many in North Carolina. While rural areas face the brunt of internet connectivity challenges, a December 2023 survey by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) showed that digital equity gaps exist in all 100 of the state’s counties. 

What does this mean for ordinary North Carolinians? In areas where high-speed internet access is hard to come by, residents struggle to keep up with the realities of an increasingly digital society. From virtual appointments to online job training programs to banking, lack of connectivity means lack of opportunity—and, in the case of telehealth, lack of access to critical health care services. 

While some North Carolinians, like Stone, can find workarounds for connectivity gaps, the challenge is greater for lower-income communities and historically marginalized groups. 

“Access to the internet is essential to work, study, shop, pay bills, and obtain information,” said Stone, who keeps regular tabs on broadband expansion efforts in hopes that her rural street will soon be connected. “All of the strategies that I described take money.”

 

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What’s driving digital equity in NC? Gov. Cooper’s enthusiasm and Biden’s funding

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which illuminated how important high-speed internet access is, the Biden-Harris administration worked fast to develop a number of programs to improve digital equity in North Carolina and beyond. 

Using funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, the Biden-Harris administration announced more than $25 billion to expand affordable high-speed internet access nationwide in 2022. North Carolina got a good share of it—$1 billion alone to “close the digital divide.”

And earlier this year, the Biden-Harris administration announced further funding through their Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), and still more from the American Rescue Plan Act to reach an additional 16,000 unconnected homes and businesses in NC. In total, the Biden administration has now invested some $3 billion since COVID in the state’s digital equity and expansion efforts. 

Gov. Roy Cooper has long considered internet expansion to be a priority for North Carolina.

He’s led efforts for North Carolina’s state government to allot $30 million for improved broadband infrastructure, affordability, and “digital literacy”—helping those who aren’t familiar with using the internet to learn. Digital literacy is a key component, as North Carolinians who lack necessary skills to use the internet will still struggle to benefit from access. 

In 2018, Cooper launched the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grant program, which centered around bringing broadband to underserved communities. And in 2021, with support from the Biden-Harris administration’s programs, Cooper announced the formation of the North Carolina Office of Digital Equity and Literacy—the first of its kind in the nation. 

“The pandemic showed us more than ever the importance of digital equity in North Carolina,” Cooper said in 2021. “Creating the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy will enable us to accelerate the critical work of bringing all North Carolinians up to speed with the digital society so they can live more equitable, prosperous, educated and healthier lives.”

The governor’s connectivity vision consists of three goals: raising the percentage of households in NC with high-speed internet from 73% to 80%, achieving 100% connectivity for households with school-aged children, and increasing connectivity rates among “racial subgroups” like Black and Native American residents. 

Republican pushback guts affordable internet program

Because federal dollars must be spent by 2026, the North Carolina Office of Digital Equity and Literacy has moved quickly to usher broadband expansion projects along. A tracking tool from the Division of Information Technology shows that as of May 2024, more than 136,000 households and 4,100 businesses in North Carolina had been serviced through connectivity grants and programs. 

And until recently, many lower-income North Carolinians could count on further service discounts through the Affordable Connectivity Program, a national initiative that helped families in rural areas and underserved communities save at least $30 per month on internet plans—along with one-time price cuts on equipment like laptops and tablets. 

“I can run fiber right up to your front door, but if you can’t afford the cost of service, you’re still going to get left behind,” said Nate Denny, North Carolina’s broadband and digital equity deputy secretary, in a 2023 interview with Cardinal & Pine.

But despite a plea from the Biden-Harris administration for Congress to extend $6 billion in additional funding, the Affordable Connectivity Program expired in May, after Republican lawmakers blocked the expansion. This move took away benefits for some 900,000 North Carolina residents who relied on the service to help provide affordable internet. 

Nationally, the shutdown of the Affordable Connectivity Program affected more than 23 million households. 

“The end of the ACP will undo the significant progress we have made toward closing the divide and harm millions of Americans,” said FCC commissioner Anna Gomez in a press statement. “Connectivity has never been more important.”

As they look ahead to the Nov. 5 election, residents like Claire Stone hope they’ll see candidates and leaders from both sides of the aisle prioritizing high-speed internet access for all. 

“People with access to the internet can learn, work, shop, and pay taxes. This should not be a partisan issue, but apparently it’s their inability to see the challenges if they do not face them themselves,” Stone said of leaders who fail to prioritize digital equity. “Or their inability to care.”

Author

  • Sophie Boudreau

    Sophie Boudreau is a writer and editor with nearly a decade of experience covering lifestyle, culture, and political topics. She previously served as senior editor at eHow and produced Michigan and Detroit content for Only In Your State.

CATEGORIES: INFRASTRUCTURE
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