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Rural broadband is not a luxury

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If you are like me, your email has been flooded lately with stories about COVID-19. Most articles use faceless data like unemployment figures, infection rates and economic losses to paint a sobering picture of an unpredictable global health crisis with an uncertain outcome.

One story, however, had a face. It was an article about a Lenoir County high school student traveling three miles every day to access WiFi so he could complete online assignments because he did not have broadband at home.

That story stuck with me because it is an experience our rural communities know too well, a lesson they learned long before COVID-19 brought the importance of broadband access into our larger public dialogue.

At the NC Rural Center, we’ve been actively pushing for broadband expansion for the past five years, and we applaud the significant, bipartisan measures that seek to better connect all corners of North Carolina. Among them is the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) program, an effort of the N.C. General Assembly and the State Broadband Infrastructure Office, which provides grants to help deploy broadband service to unserved areas.

State-level policies like GREAT are a significant step in the right direction, but as COVID-19 continues to affect our state, it’s clear that now is the time to act on this issue at an even higher level of magnitude.

Flattening the curve and keeping North Carolinians healthy during this time gets easier when people can visit their doctors through telehealth services and students and teachers can access online learning platforms at home. And as we at the Rural Center are seeing firsthand, broadband is a lifeline, keeping many businesses and nonprofits running during these times of social distancing and sheltering in place.

And it’s not just COVID-19 that is raising greater awareness about the importance of broadband access. For the first time, the census form is available online, with the goal to make completing the census as easy as possible. But without broadband, the very mechanism intended to ensure an accurate count in places already at risk for an undercount is ineffective.

Our efforts to expand broadband to all of North Carolina cannot end when this pandemic ends or when the last person is counted in the census. While some small, rural broadband providers have stepped up during this time to provide free hotspots for rural students, they alone cannot shoulder the costs of expanding this essential service.

Expanding broadband access and affordability will require a significant, increased fiscal allocation, public-private partnerships that leverage existing assets, and a commitment from every sector to not stop advocating until every household is connected, down to the last mile. 

Our rural communities know all too well that broadband is a necessity, not a luxury—for education, health care and economic development. Broadband is an infrastructure no less important for a community’s economic future than the electricity that runs to their homes. Broadband is a necessity today as we navigate an unprecedented global pandemic, and it will be a necessity for tomorrow as we reignite our economy after COVID-19. 

Patrick Woodie is president of the NC Rural Center.

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