Elizabeth Underwood

Elizabeth Underwood

While rural broadband deficits predated COVID-19, the pandemic has exploded the conversation surrounding what it means to access the internet in rural America.

I grew up in suburban Charlotte, where the solution to internet trouble typically required a simple restart of the router or, if you were desperate, switching to any of the other 28 area service providers (yes, there really are that many). I never realized there are individuals in my home state without the opportunity to access the digital world because they lack broadband infrastructure. I definitely thought these problems were reserved for developing nations, not here. In my state? In my eastern North Carolina backyard?

The N.C. Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) and the Pew Research Center tell us that seven out of 10 teachers give homework assignments that require the internet nationally. Yet an estimated 5 million households with school-age children lack access to the internet at home. Although this data is from 2015, it could not be more relevant as we navigated the virtual learning environment during the pandemic.

In 2016, the DIT released “Connecting North Carolina State Broadband Plan,” which had nearly 80 recommended policies “to ensure that all North Carolinians who seek to adopt broadband have access to it by 2021.” Yes, you read that correctly. It is indeed already 2021 with only subtle changes to rural broadband, especially in eastern North Carolina.

Is the (lack of) rural broadband hindering our youth’s future economic and career opportunities? I’d venture to say so. Is it encouraging that same generation to continue the out-migration of rural areas? Absolutely. Between 2010 and 2018, as North Carolina’s big metro areas boomed, 43 counties lost residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Some eastern North Carolina communities like Rocky Mount suffered outright population losses, while places like Goldsboro and Wilson saw below-average growth levels.

Out-migration impacts our workforce, too, often eliminating our region from consideration by companies seeking expansion and relocation destinations.

That’s why the North Carolina Economic Development Association (NCEDA) is advocating aggressively for creative, customizable and replicable broadband solutions that ensure businesses, residents, and students across North Carolina have access to the ever-increasing global economy.

Just as digital educational resources help prepare students for sustainable careers, telehealth applications have the potential to improve health care access for rural patients and save lives. Telemedicine, specifically during the pandemic, has become more essential, less expensive, and increasingly efficient for both parties.

I suffered a COVID-19 infection in February of this year. Thanks to telemedicine and broadband access, I was able to access my doctor virtually three separate times for my asthma-stricken lungs, without exposing an emergency room or doctor’s office. Rural America needs this option.

Access to broadband also means greater links to e-government resources, which ensures citizens have the necessary tools to connect with municipal and county services. Additionally, every business deserves to have linkages to the global economy. This is the only way companies can remain relevant and competitive in today’s world.

We are at a unique, unrepeatable moment in history. The American Rescue Plan is extending massive federal resources to states and communities for broadband, with additional appropriations likely when Congress passes an infrastructure bill.

North Carolina is a state of firsts, and our counties and municipalities need to begin making tough, bold, unprecedented decisions toward the undeniable future. Gone are the days of “we’ll get there eventually.” The time is now.

NCEDA and other organizations are urging governing entities to create a bold, specific plan with American Rescue Plan allocations designated for connectivity. Achievable solutions are critical for students and schools, for telehealth effectiveness and efficiency, for e-government productivity, and for business creation, economic growth and sustainable prosperity.

Elizabeth Underwood is an economic development specialist in Beaufort County. She lives in Greenville.

Contact Bobby Burns at baburns@reflector.com and 329.9572.