Searching for solutions to North Carolina's digital divide

North Carolina students traded in their books for computers as they learned virtually during the pandemic.

But the North Carolina Department of Information Technology estimates 834,948 households in the state don't have any internet access.

"The pandemic has highlighted everything that we've been seeing for a number of years," said Jeff Sural, the department's Broadband Infrastructure Office Director.

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He shared near-term and long-term solutions in a presentation to lawmakers in April, at the start of the pandemic.

One short-term solution-distributing computers and Wi-Fi hotspots to students. That's what many local school districts did when schools shut down.

"I think we're OK for the fall but to be honest, long-term, I don't see this as a sustainable model," Sural said.

Sural said the long-term and best solution is to make sure all homes in North Carolina have access to internet service.

To get students online, some school districts in other states have created unique approaches.

Albemarle County Public Schools in Charlottesville, Virginia, started to build its own DIY broadband network. It provides internet to about 100 students living in a mobile home park. But before they could expand the network, they ran into some challenges.

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"Such as some limitations to how many towers could be put up or how high towers could be and that really impacted the viability of being able to provide good access through that project and there were human resources realities that we just didn't have the staff to do it," said Christine Diggs, of Albemarle County Public Schools.

The district didn't give up and leased part of its spectrum to a private company, using those fees to purchase hot spots students can use at home. Albemarle has other plans in the works and has this advice for other districts:

"To think creatively with a solution-focused, can-do attitude and really keep the focus for the community and for your school division on the equity issue and the digital equity issue and how important it is in this day in age to have access to information," Diggs said.

So what would it take to connect all North Carolina homes?

"It would take a comprehensive strategy or plan that would include funding from the state and federal government and also matching up funding with the private sector," Sural said.

Also needed, Sural said, an infusion of capital to build out telecommunications infrastructure. Estimates show that could cost over one billion dollars.

Sural said there's also a need to take care of low-income families who can't afford Internet service and to provide digital literacy so parents can help students with schoolwork.

Read Sural's presentation with solutions.
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