As the COVID-19 pandemic forces North Carolina public school and college students to learn entirely online, more than 197,000 households with students still have no Internet access at home.
It’s long been known low-income and rural areas have far less access to high speed Internet, lawmakers in a House select committee on COVID-19 response heard Tuesday. But the current pandemic shows just how dangerous the problem is and how urgent it is to find solutions.
Jeff Sural, director of the state Department of Information Technology’s Broadband Infrastructure office, gave a presentation to lawmakers that laid out the depth of the problem and the best short and long term solutions.
About 95% of households in North Carolina have access to broadband Internet, Sural said — slightly better than the national average of 93.5%. But broad swaths of rural North Carolina, including some of the state’s most low-income areas, are left out.
“The primary reason for low adoption or lack of adoption of Internet service is cost,” Sural said. “We know that from not only a research study we did with East Carolina University several years ago but from national studies and research projects. The second is access itself, though.”
Sural provided a map of the state that showed large red blocks indicating census blocks underserved in terms of broadband Internet access. The largest unbroken blocks were in rural areas such as the western area of the state from Cherokee County to Henderson County and the eastern part of the state in relatively sparsely populated counties like Dare, Hyde, Carteret and Jones counties.
“There’s over 261,000 households in those red areas that are unserved,” Sural said.
Lack of accurate data means the number could be much higher, Sural said.
“It probably doesn’t look a lot different than other maps that you’ve seen that might represent economic distress or low income,” he said.
That’s a huge problem not just for students but for the now much larger number of North Carolinians who need to rely on telehealth services rather than visits to doctor’s offices or hospitals in order to slow the spread of the the coronavirus.
The immediate response has been to work with Internet service providers to increase access in the short term, Sural said. Both the federal government and Gov. Roy Cooper’s office have asked providers to waive late fees for service, pledge not to cut off service during the pandemic, and work with state and local governments to provide wi-fi hotspots. Over 700 companies have pledged to do those things, Sural said.
The state is seeking a waiver to use now empty public school buildings that have federally subsidized broadband Internet as de facto short-term providers. A lot of bandwidth is going unused without students in their schools each day, Sural said.
But better near-term and long-term solutions are needed, Sural said.
Some more permanent fixes are within the reach of lawmakers as they look to reconvene in Raleigh on April 28 to pass a series of pandemic response bills.
One is passage of the FIBER NC Act, which would allow county and local governments to finance or install infrastructure to be used by Internet service providers.
The state should also seek a federal emergency appropriation including block grants to the states to purchase wi-fi hotspots, cellular enabled laptops and equipment to provide wi-fi on buses, Sural said.
Sural’s office also suggested establishing a tax credit for broadband providers that accept federal subsidies for home access, requiring health insurance coverage for telemedicine services and connectivity costs, and holding Internet service providers to stricter equipment and pledged speed standards.
Lawmakers in Tuesday’s meeting agreed the problem is an urgent one made all the more apparent by the current pandemic. Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln) shared the story of his 76-year-old father having his first telemedicine appointment this week and said greater broadband access could mean lower medical costs for all North Carolinians with wider adoption of such appointments.
Rep. John Szoka (R-Cumberland) said it’s time for the General Assembly to do more than talk about solving the Internet access disparity problem in the state.
“In the past several sessions we’ve had discussions on some of these solutions and the discussions always come down to, ‘Is Internet service, is broadband connectivity, a service or infrastructure?” Szoka said. “I would make the argument today, that due to this COVID-19 when government is telling students to stay home and they don’t have the ability to connect to the Internet, the pendulum would appear to me at least to be swinging to the broadband service — high speed broadband service — is more infrastructure than an optional service.”
“I think there is really a role for government and I think this crisis has really shown that,” Szoka said.
Note: This post has been updated to correct an inadvertent error in identifying the director of the Department of Information Technology’s Broadband Infrastructure office. His name is Jeff Sural.