A new proposal by NC Governor Roy Cooper seeks to address the problem of poor internet access that exists across the state, particularly in rural areas such as Craven County. The broadband divide has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which showed that many North Carolinians lack the access, financial means, devices or skills needed to fully participate in today’s digital society.
The governor’s proposal would invest $1.2 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds over the next four years in three key areas:
- Infrastructure and access: $600 million to rapidly build crucial infrastructure in unserved areas to give internet speeds of 100/20 Mbps (megabits per second) to 98% of households and 50/10 Mbps to 100% of households, with the ability to handle future speeds of 100/100 Mbps.
- Accessibility: $420 million to promote and continue federal programs for affordable internet such as the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (which gives low-income households a discount on internet services), and continue subscription support once federal funding ends.
- Digital literacy: $165 million to provide devices, training and tools to connect to the digital economy, with a goal of giving 365,000 households the devices, repair support and digital literacy and skills training to participate in the digital economy.
An additional $15 million would cover administrative and operational costs to supplement the existing state administrative capacity to support high-speed internet efforts.
Addressing the digital divide in New Bern
According to information from the NC Department of Information Technology, 87% of Craven County residents currently have access to internet speeds of 100/20 Mbps, compared to 85% of residents in Pamlico County, 98% in Onslow County, and 74% in Lenoir County.
The City of New Bern has recently taken steps to help increase service locally, recently approving an agreement with high-speed fiber internet company Metronet that allows the two parties to work through any permitting issues, easement plans and questions concerning what Metronet is willing to offer in the area. The company expected to begin infrastructure work to bring their services to New Bern beginning in October and anticipate having new customers on their system as early as March or April of 2022, according to New Bern’s Interim City Manager Foster Hughes.
Under state law, the City will have no authority to regulate or control Metronet’s services, which include a video service of up to 240 channels, fiber phone with up to 17 different calling features, fiber Internet and wireless phone networking.
According to ,
Metronet services will also be offered in River Bend, Trent Woods, Bridgeton and other areas served by City of New Bern utilities, said Charles Bauschard the director of Public Utilities.
Bauschard anticipated a project duration of two to three years. He said he expected a “massive volume” of construction activities going on simultaneously and spread throughout the city,” once work begins in October.
“They want to move fast, they want to get the project installed and get out of here and get the customers connected just as fast as possible,” said Bauschard.
Metronet officials plan to give a presentation before the Board of Aldermen on August 24 to discuss their marketing and service plans.
Race, income play a role in quality of internet access
At least 1.1 million households in North Carolina struggle with broadband access, according to NCDIT, with 4% of urban households and 35% of rural households lacking adequate broadband infrastructure. The numbers also point to the racial divide that exists within the digital divide: 24% of White households, 32% of Latinx households, 36% of Black households and 43% of American Indian households do not have high-speed internet subscriptions. Additionally, 19% of households with children do not have the infrastructure or subscriptions.
As for the cost of internet in North Carolina, affordability data reveals that 46.8% of the state’s population has access to what is considered a low-priced internet plan, or one costing equal to or less than $60 per month. That percentage is below the national average of 51.5% of consumers with access to a low-priced plan.
State bill to address internet access languishing in Senate
A state bill filed in the state House of Representatives in May also seeks to address the state’s
digital divide by allocating more than $750 million to connect Craven and other counties throughout the state to broadband internet access.
Under the newly established Completing Access to Broadband (CAB) program, House Bill 947 allocates $400 million in grants that would be made available to every county in the state to help close “broadband gaps.”
The bill also provides $340 million for the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (G.R.E.A.T.) program, which has become a national model for deploying broadband to unserved and underserved areas.
Additionally, the legislation distributes $12 million for satellite and fixed wireless grants to be used to reimburse consumers for the costs associated with installing an antenna and other hardware to receive internet signal. The money would allow providers and consumers to capitalize on new satellite broadband internet systems.
HB 947 passed its final reading in the House and was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Rules and Operation on May 27.