NC will use funding from Biden’s infrastructure bill to help close digital divide

On Monday, President Joe Biden signed into law the $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that will bring close to $1 billion in federal funding to help close the digital divide in North Carolina.

“The bipartisan infrastructure package signed yesterday by President Biden is a huge investment in our country that will bring good-paying jobs and much-needed infrastructure modernization to North Carolina,” said Governor Roy Cooper in a release. “This bill will help ensure we emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever before by improving our roads, bridges, public transit systems, high speed internet networks, clean water and disaster preparedness.”

According to the N.C. Department of Information Technology (NCDIT), more than one million NC residents don’t have access to a high-speed internet connection, cannot afford internet service, do not have an adequate device or do not have the digital skills needed to use the devices to work, learn, access telehealth and engage with the digital economy.

Many rural areas of North Carolina don’t have access to internet.

“I’ve tried and called every internet company that there is and everyone has gave me the same answer when I ask about getting internet out here,” said Monroe resident Sabrina Trull. “They tell me, they don’t come out this far.”

Trull tried hotspots from her kids’ school and a phone company but they were too slow and unreliable.

“It’s just a struggle as far as with them having to get their schoolwork done,” Trull said.

Trull said her children really can’t do their homework at home. When Trull finds time between the two jobs she works, they are forced to drive to the public library or to her sister’s house to have access to the internet.

“The fact that they can’t do their homework at home that means their grades may drop,” she said.

She said one of her kid’s grades did drop when they had to stay at home for 10 days after they were identified as a close COVID-19 contact at school.

“It is emotionally frustrating, I broke down when I found out nobody could come out here,” Trull said.

It’s not an issue she thought she’d run into when she moved into the new home in March and unfortunately, it’s not a unique one, especially for rural communities.

According to the Pew Research Center, nationally, 15% of households with school-aged children don’t have high-speed internet access at home.

And here in North Carolina, it’s estimated that as many as half a million students don’t have access to high-speed internet, the NCDIT said.

“My kids, they’re suffering more than anything, they are, and I hate to see that, because it’s like, I’m failing as a mother by not being able to provide something as simple as internet,” Trull said. “I’m at wits end right now, I don’t know what else to do.”

The IIJA will provide the state the following:

  • $100 million in block funding, along with the state’s share of both $4 billion in funding for high-cost areas and $37 billion for last-mile infrastructure. These shares will be prioritized based on unserved areas, underserved areas and community anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, medical and healthcare providers, public safety entities, community colleges, and other institutions of higher education;
  • In addition, the state will receive or be able to compete for a portion of $640 million for digital equity capacity planning and $1.3 billion for digital equity grants;
  • Access to a $1 billion grant program for middle-mile infrastructure to help bring fiber – which allows for faster internet speeds – closer to rural communities; and
  • Modifies, extends and renames the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP), and reduces the monthly benefit to $30 to help households afford access to high-speed internet service.

With these funds and the N.C. General Assembly’s appropriation of more than $960 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds, the NCDIT seeks to raise the percentage of North Carolina households with high-speed internet subscriptions from 73% to 80% and raise the percentage of households with children with high-speed internet subscriptions from 81% to 100%. Additionally, NCDIT is striving to increase adoption rates to 80% across the following racial subgroups: Native American (currently 57%), Black (currently 64%), Latinx (currently 68%) and White (currently 76%).

(WATCH: Charlotte announces $250 million investment in step toward racial equity)

Comments on this article