Chamber Chat: Broadband

Jun 03

By Meg Moss


This week, I had the opportunity to attend the Rural Center’s “Rural Day” in Raleigh. After a statewide tour of our eighty rural communities, the Rural Center narrowed down their advocacy priority areas to three: Access to broadband, access to healthcare in rural communities, and small business development.

In this article, I will focus on the information the Rural Center provided us on this imperative: Expanding access to high-speed, affordable broadband internet is the rural economic development issue of our time.

For a long time, our conversations about broadband have been about its use for personal or recreational use, when in fact it is the primary factor of community success in a rapidly changing economy. The Rural Center said it like this: Our rural communities must have access to quality broadband infrastructure if we are to educate our children, take care of our health, start new businesses, and ensure public safety. Communities without connectivity will not be competitive in retaining or recruiting businesses, physicians or teachers. They will not be successful in attracting young families either.

According to the Rural Center, North Carolina has one of the most robust middle-mile fiber networks in the nation. Our anchor organizations – schools, colleges, hospitals and local governments – are connected to a strong backbone of high-speed connectivity. However, providing last-mile fiber to the home or business remains a persistent challenge, due to low population density and high construction costs.

While the Rural Center does not believe it is the state’s role to build and operate infrastructure, they do believe there are several policy options the state could take to drive the competition among existing and potential Internet Service Providers (ISP) that will improve access and affordability in rural areas.

Some of the policy options include a Rural Broadband Deployment Grant Program; a statewide “Dig Once” policy that coordinates efforts among state and local offices to reduce costs incurred by installing infrastructure; Digital Literacy and Internet Adoption Initiatives to, in part, provide funding for digital literacy programs for senior citizens, parents and low-income families. It would also include incentives for internet service providers to offer low-cost service options in certain areas. The Homework Gap policy is another option that can be researched. North Carolina currently uses E-rate to connect all public schools in the state. But now, with online textbooks and internet-based education, we need to close the homework gap for students without home access. And lastly, Telehealth Report Implementation. The Department of Health and Human Services was required to report recommendations regarding telehealth. Some of the recommendations were to clearly define the definition of telemedicine, and define data transfer speeds to ensure information privacy. The recommendations also include joining the national Psychology Interjurisdictional Compact (PSYPACT) to address behavioral health workforce shortages.

The possible solutions for the access to the broadband issue are multifaceted, but in all cases they involve public-private relationships that will make sure our homes, schools, health systems, and businesses are equipped with the broadband infrastructure needed for them to thrive.

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