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Locked out: Without internet, tens of thousands of North Carolinians can’t adequately learn, get health care

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This map from 2016 included in a state report illustrates the extent of the digital divide. A recent analysis shows thousands of North Carolinians still lack broadband access, and sometimes any internet at all. (Map: NC Department of Information Technology) [2]

Nearly a third of all North Carolina households lack high-speed internet, essentially cutting them off from crucial education and health care services, according to a recent report by the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental, and Health Equity Task Force [3]. Most of these areas are rural and often in communities of color.

This problem has been a long time in the making. In 2011, prodded by the powerful telecommunications lobby, the General Assembly passed legislation that forbade local governments from using tax dollars to build their own broadband systems. House Bill 129, [4] which became law without Gov. Bev Perdue’s signature, was entitled “Level Playing Field,” and was a response to the cities of Wilson and Salisbury, which had embarked on their own broadband projects.

Corporate internet providers feared that a proliferation of government-owned networks would harm their business, so they lobbied the government to protect them. (The Senate companion bill was sponsored by Tom Apodaca, now a lobbyist for the NC Cable Telecommunications Association.) But the opposite happened in Salisbury. After the town launched its network in 2010, for-profit companies cut their prices to compete. A local referendum forced Salisbury to lease its network to Hotwire.

Nearly a decade later and despite promises from the telecommunications industry, tens of thousands of people in North Carolina lack reliable internet.

In the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers did pass a measure to spur broadband in economically distressed areas by appropriating $15 million to a grant program [5] whose eligibility applies also to for-profit companies like CenturyLink and Spectrum. House Bill 431 [6], which would have allowed cities and counties to install and maintain broadband services, foundered in the Finance Committee [7].

North Carolina also received $30 million in federal CARES Act funding for rural broadband expansion; that money must be spent by Dec. 30, but according to The News & Observer, Gov. Roy Cooper said his administration hasn’t allocated the money because of a lack of clarity on whether it’s legal under U.S. Treasury regulations.

Why it matters: During the pandemic many school-aged children, particularly in rural areas, have not been able to attend virtual classes or participate in remote learning because they don’t have internet. Some don’t even have computers and instead use a cellphone.

In addition to the difficulty — or impossibility — of learning without adequate internet and computers, these communities are also excluded from another essential service: telemedicine. Virtual face-to-face appointments have quickly become key for routine medical care, especially in areas without nearby health care clinics. This need is, of course, more acute during a pandemic. And while Medicare and Medicaid reimburse telehealth services at the same rate as regular in-person visits, those reimbursements don’t apply to phone services.

The following numbers serve to highlight some additional details of what’s come to be referred to by many as North Carolina’s “digital divide”:

Sources: Andrea Harris Task Force Report, NC Broadband Infrastructure Office