Commentary

NC should use all tools at its disposal to close the digital divide

Image: NC League of Municipalities

No matter their means or where they live, people require reliable broadband.

That is the case whether a child needing reliable internet to complete his or her homework, or a worker needing to work remotely from home. And how well these needs are being met affects a community’s economic future.

Over the last several years, this reality has become better understood by policymakers at the state and federal level. Still, the focus is often on the most rural areas of our state and country. But the lack of access to quality broadband connections is not limited to the most remote areas.

Albemarle is only 40 miles from Charlotte, and the town and surrounding Stanly County have plenty of pockets where residents still struggle to receive the kind of broadband service that they need to lead prosperous, fulfilling lives.

For workers who commute to Charlotte for employment, the trip back home can mean a return to internet that is slow, unreliable or both.

Some children are forced to find internet access in a fast-food restaurant or at a library that has limited hours of operation. Often, these children rely on working adults to get them to these places, placing strains on those families.

The ability to operate home-based businesses, and keep and retain the talented individuals who run them, can depend on reliable internet. Meanwhile, in a changing world, long-standing businesses lining main streets can require more data and more access to information that only fast, reliable broadband can bring.

Earlier this year, a study from the U.S Chamber of Commerce and Amazon estimated that North Carolina, over the past three years, has seen $3 billion and 13,740 jobs unrealized due to the lack of access to digital tools by rural small businesses. Sixty-six percent of rural small businesses said poor internet or cell phone connectivity negatively impacts their business.

That we are losing valuable workforce talent and business opportunities in our rural communities because of a lack of reliable broadband should not be happening in 2019, roughly two decades into the Internet Age.

Simply put, North Carolina requires more extensive broadband options.

This year, the North Carolina General Assembly approved legislation allowing electric cooperatives to bring their resources and infrastructure to the table to try to help close the digital divide. They should be commended for that step.

Image: NC League of Municipalities

But it is not enough. They also need to follow through with legislation called the FIBER NC Act that will allow local governments to make broadband investments and partner with private-sector partners to provide better broadband service.

The time to act is now. Major parts of our state – some of them within sight of the top floors of Charlotte office towers – cannot wait.

Martha Sue Hall is Mayor Pro-Tem of Albemarle

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