The Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI) at NC State University, a nonpartisan public policy organization focused on the state’s vibrancy and economic competitiveness, this week announced the formation of Building a New Digital Economy in NC (BAND-NC), a new fund designed to make the state “first in digital inclusion.” BAND-NC will launch with initial support from Roanoke Electric Cooperative and North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives in partnership with the NC Broadband Infrastructure Office (BIO), and provide grants to help counties develop plans to increase the percentage of their residents that adopt and are able to use broadband services.
BAND-NC seeks to help North Carolina become the first state in the nation where every county has a digital inclusion plan by the end of 2022.
“Thanks to great bipartisan leadership, North Carolina is making progress in ensuring broadband is available to people across the state, but we have an adoption problem,” said IEI Director Leslie Boney. “Right now, just 59% of people with access to broadband are subscribing to it. And with lower rates of adoption in rural counties and among lower income families, if we don’t plan now to include people digitally, those people and their communities will get further and further behind.”
Data from the NC Broadband Infrastructure Office shows wide disparities in adoption of broadband services, with both a rural-urban and an income divide. Rural households subscribe at lower rates than urban households (as low as 49.7% in Graham County and as high as 89.7% in Wake County). Households making under $20,000 a year subscribe at a 51.2% rate compared to 93.8% of those making $75,000 or more a year (see link below for a county-by-county listing of adoption rates).
Digital inclusion plans will include strategies to increase access to devices and make broadband affordable to more people. They also aim to equip a range of stakeholders with knowledge of how to utilize broadband: enabling young learners to do homework online and older learners to retrain online, expanding job possibilities through telework, improving access to telehealth services, expanding business markets, improving crop yields and adding efficiency to farm operations.
As part of BAND-NC, the state Broadband Office and IEI will host a series of meetings to assist community leaders in developing and implementing county-level digital inclusion plans. Roanoke Electric’s work will support development of plans in Bertie, Halifax, Hertford, Northampton, Gates, Perquimans and Chowan counties, while North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives will fund three selected county plans from among its 93-county service area.
“As the power provider for rural North Carolina, our state’s electric cooperatives have an important role to play in addressing the state’s digital divide, and we’re proud to support this comprehensive broadband adoption initiative,” said Nelle Hotchkiss, senior vice president and chief operating officer of association services for North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives. “BAND-NC will help further bridge our state’s broadband gap by providing rural communities the resources they need to benefit from broadband technologies and the many opportunities they provide.”
“There is a strong need in our communities for more digital education and training for our member-owners,” said Curtis Wynn, Roanoke Electric Cooperative’s president and CEO. “We have some programs in place, but our rural communities need to know more about the education, telehealth, telework and business opportunities available through broadband.”
Over the next few months, the Institute for Emerging Issues is seeking other investors in BAND-NC, with the goal of making $5,000 grants available across the state to counties developing digital inclusion plans. Interested counties would submit plans on August 6 for review on a competitive basis, with selected plans receiving grants to begin implementing their initial strategies.
To see a full listing of North Carolina broadband adoption rates, by county and income level, please go to iei.ncsu.edu/band-nc-data/.