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Digital Divide: 250,000+ in NC can’t access internet because of no infrastructure

RALEIGH, NC (WNCN) — Many people can’t go a day without using the internet, but not everyone has the same access.

North Carolina estimates 270,000 North Carolinians can’t access the internet at all because the infrastructure isn’t there. Nearly $1 billion of mostly federal, and some state dollars, is going towards improving broadband infrastructure.

Kim LeQuire is the human resources manager at Kornegay Family Farms and Produce in Johnston County.

She uses the internet for everything from remotely monitoring produce to uploading navigation into tractors. At times she’s had to tell customers she won’t be able to get something to them because the internet was down.

“It shouldn’t take 30 minutes to upload one photo,” LeQuire said.

After CBS 17 spoke to LeQuire she learned Spectrum is expanding service on her road, hoping she will get internet access at her office and make her job easier.

“We know that the equipment is out there to bring us more high-speed internet — we would just like it brought out here,” she said.

Nate Denny is the deputy secretary for Broadband and Digital Equity at The North Carolina Department of Information Technology. He estimates that less than 95 percent of North Carolinians have access to high-speed internet.

That means at least half a million people lack access to high speeds.

He said access is a problem in both rural areas and cities, but deploying the actual technology to rural areas is a significant challenge. He said internet providers often don’t have an incentive to extend the lines.

“There’s a considerable capital expenditure associated with laying fiber or deploying fixed wireless technology,” Denny said.

“Unique opportunity” to improve broadband infrastructure

Denny said there’s a unique opportunity for North Carolina to address the challenge — COVID-19 relief money from the federal government.

North Carolina is using $941 million in American Rescue Plan funds and $30 million in state money for building broadband infrastructure. Out of that, $380 million will go towards the GREAT grant program, which expands internet access in rural areas.

“Those grant funds are intended to change the math so that it’s worth it for internet providers to go into these rural parts of the state,” Denny said.

As of January, the state said it expanded access to 40,000 homes and businesses since the GREAT program began in 2018, spending a combined $91 million in state and private funds, according to a press release from the state.

That averages out to a little more than $2,000 per household. Denny said he does not believe the cost is too high.

“For full participation in the modern economy today you have to have a high-speed internet connection, and so I would say that that cost is quite a deal for the state and for the people of North Carolina,” he said.

Denny noted the federal infrastructure bill includes $65 billion for improving internet access in the US He said with federal money, North Carolina will get 98 percent of households access to high-speed internet (100/20 Mbps) by 2025.

That’s a benchmark that can’t come soon enough for people like the Pilkingtons who live in Johnston County, who say daily web browsing is a struggle.

Cameron Pilkington’s speed test showed a speed of 8.97/.94 Mbps.

“Sometimes, like at the end of the day, we just want to relax, and just goof off, you know, do our thing and then the internet just prevents us from doing that,” Pilkington said

Of the money for broadband infrastructure $1 million is going towards mapping. Denny said that will help zero in on what households do and don’t have internet.

You can click here to take the state’s broadband survey and report your internet speed.

Click here to learn more about the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program which gives internet discounts to households who can’t afford it.

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