Jul 26 2021

North Carolina Unveils Digital Equity Office to Help Close Divide

The new office will be charged with executing Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan to expand broadband access in the state.

The coronavirus pandemic laid bare the ongoing digital divide in the United States, in cities and in rural America. North Carolina, a state with several major cities and large rural swaths, is taking steps to help expand access to broadband connectivity for all parts of the Tar Heel State.

Earlier this month, Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled a new Office of Digital Equity and Literacy, which will spearhead efforts to execute on Cooper’s plan to use about $1.2 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to close the digital divide in the state by 2025.

The office will be part of the state’s recently created Division of Broadband and Digital Equity within the North Carolina Department of Information Technology. NCDIT Secretary and CIO Jim Weaver named Nate Denny as the new deputy secretary of broadband and digital equity; Denny previously served as NCDIT’s chief of staff.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Collins, who served as director of the NC @ High Speed initiative in Cooper’s Hometown Strong office, will lead the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy.

“The pandemic showed us more than ever the importance of digital equity in North Carolina,” Cooper said in a statement. “Creating the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy will enable us to accelerate the critical work of bringing all North Carolinians up to speed with the digital society so they can live more equitable, prosperous, educated and healthier lives.”

How North Carolina Aims to Close the Digital Divide

As StateScoop notes, North Carolina ranks 18th among states in terms of broadband access, according to BroadbandNow Research, a firm that provides independent data and research on broadband access and policy.

While 94 percent of North Carolinians have access to broadband 100 megabits per second or faster, according to BroadbandNow, only 46.8 percent of the state’s population has access to a low-price broadband plan.

The new digital equity office will execute Cooper’s plan to expand digital literacy offerings and partnerships across North Carolina, as well as lead the Digital Equity and Inclusion Collaborative and promote the state’s digital inclusion playbook for local municipalities.

Cooper’s plan is built around the three pillars of infrastructure and access, affordability and digital literacy. Cooper is proposing using $600 million in federal funding to “rapidly build crucial infrastructure in unserved areas to give internet speeds” of 100Mbps downlink and 20Mbps uplink to 98 percent of households, and 50Mbps downlink and 10Mbps uplink to 100 percent of households (with the ability to handle future speeds of 100/100Mbps).

The plan also proposes using $420 million to “promote federal programs for affordable internet and continue subscription support once federal funding ends” and $165 million to “give 365,000 households the devices, repair support and digital literacy and skills training to participate in the digital economy.”

“An additional $15 million would cover administrative and operational costs to supplement existing state administrative capacity to support high-speed internet efforts,” the plan notes.

North Carolina expects that the plan also will require “significant private investment,” presumably from internet service providers.

By 2025, Cooper wants to increase the percentage of North Carolina households with high-speed internet subscriptions from 73 percent to 80 percent. He also wants to boost the percentage of North Carolina households with children with high-speed internet subscriptions from 81 percent to 100 percent.

The plan is also focused on closing racial disparities in access to high-speed broadband and seeks to increase adoption rates to 80 percent across racial subgroups including Native American (currently 57 percent), Black (currently 64 percent), Latinx (currently 68 percent) and white populations (currently 76 percent).

The North Carolina legislature is separately considering a $750 million bill to expand broadband access sin the state.

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