Institute for Emerging Issues Help Bridge the Digital Divide

  • ATMC
  • NC Department of Information Technology
  • Roanoke Electric Cooperative

RALEIGH — The Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI) is announcing the launch of BAND-NC, a grant program designed to increase the number of people with Internet in their homes, with the goal of making the state “first in digital inclusion.” The effort, in partnership with the NC Broadband Infrastructure Office (BIO), adds new investment from the John M. Belk Endowment and Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation to existing commitments from Roanoke Electric Cooperative and the North Carolina Electric Cooperatives to provide at least $300,000 in grants to communities across the state.

Building a New Digital Economy in NC (BAND-NC) will support thirty $5,000 “rapid response community innovation grants” this summer, a series of workshops led by IEI and BIO to help communities develop “digital inclusion plans” this fall, and another thirty $5,000 “implementation” grants in 2021. 

“The global pandemic has made it painfully obvious how critical it is for every family to have access to these services, and communities have been working hard to find emergency fixes,” said IEI director Leslie Boney. “We hope these grants can help fill some of the final emergency needs, but more importantly we are looking for communities interested in developing long-term solutions. This funding, matched with other support from government and other private investors, can be the start of those solutions.”

“Building a strategic plan is the first step in facilitating improved broadband access for students, teachers, parents and business owners,” said Tracy S. Doaks, NC Department of Information Technology Secretary and State Chief Information Officer. “Because of efforts like this, grant dollars will go into communities that are desperate for better access to affordable broadband service and the devices necessary to use it.”

IEI announced BAND-NC at its Emerging Issues Forum, ReCONNECT to Technological Opportunity, in February. The program outlines four challenges communities have in including all families in broadband services: 

  • Access—getting broadband into homes
  • Subscriptions—helping families afford broadband services. In all just 59% of families subscribe to broadband services
  • Devices—ensuring that children and adults have the equipment they need to take classes, work from home, or access health care
  • Technical assistance—assisting families in learning how to effectively use high-speed access

BAND-NC asks communities to develop solutions that address each of these issues. 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 attached for a county-by-county listing of adoption rates).

The John M. Belk Endowment has a deep commitment to ensuring educational equity in North Carolina, and sees digital inclusion as a key opportunity in accomplishing that goal. 

“COVID-19 has only increased our awareness that high-speed internet isn’t a luxury – it’s a critical utility,” said MC Belk Pilon, president and board chair of the John M. Belk Endowment. “By lifting up community-based solutions that provide educators, students, and families with access to broadband, devices, and technical support, we hope to further the efforts already underway in pursuit of digital equity across our state.”

The summer grant program will open June 12. The Institute for Emerging Issues will award up to 30 $5,000 mini-grants on a rolling basis through the end of August to fund local digital inclusion projects to meet unmet community needs. This includes access to the Internet, a device that meets the needs of residents, and the knowhow to use it. 

This fall, grantees will be invited to join technical assistance workshops to build county-wide digital inclusion plans. A second round of funding to support the implementation of these plans will be available in Spring 2021. 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.

The ultimate goal of the program is to make North Carolina the first state in the nation where every county has a digital inclusion plan in place. 

As part of the BAND-NC effort, IEI has already partnered with the Roanoke Electric Cooperative on a “Broadband & Beyond” webinar series. The three-part series took place on May 5, May 12 and May 19 and provided updates on REC’s planned broadband rollout and shared timely information on ways to bridge the digital divide during the pandemic.

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