Pandemic highlights need to take state's broadband internet survey

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Since the start of the pandemic, it has become clear that an internet connection can be a lifeline.

From telehealth to remote learning to working from home and even entertainment, being connected electronically has never been more important.

Unfortunately, many who need to be connected in North Carolina can't get internet access.

"This pandemic has only highlighted the digital gap and identified the inequities that we see in the state between people who have internet access and those who don't," said Jeff Sural, director of the Broadband Infrastructure Office with the North Carolina Department of Internet Technology.

Some don't have it because they can't afford it.

Sural states that he is partnering with internet service providers to address the issue at hand, "Many of them have been good corporate citizens providing free service to low-income households, also providing reduced pricing."

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But Sural said that doesn't address an even bigger problem-- access to the internet in rural areas where the population isn't dense enough for internet companies to get a return on investments.

However, there are federal and state dollars available to help provide internet access in those parts of the state.

"Grants to internet service providers to incentivize those providers," Sural said.

But first, the state has to figure out where the need is the greatest. So it's conducting a survey to find out. And, for obvious reasons, it's not just online.

"We have developed a phone component or a phone tool that you can use to dial-in or text-in," he said.

The five-minute survey, available in both English and Spanish, has gotten 10,000 responses in just two weeks. But the state's Department of Internet Technology is hoping for a million responses by Thanksgiving. If you can't access the internet you can text "internet" to (919) 750-0553-- standard text messaging rates will apply. Or, if you don't have a mobile phone or prefer not to text, you can simply place a voice call to (919) 750-0553.

So, it's not only important that you take it, but that you encourage people across the state to do it as well.

Because, as Sural notes, "How much money we have for broadband infrastructure depends on survey results."

Sural knows the work likely won't be done before the end of the pandemic, but he hopes that everyone in the state will have decent access to broadband internet before the next statewide emergency--whether it's another pandemic or a historical hurricane. Because, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown all of us, being able to work from home, learn from home, get healthcare from home and even additional entertainment at home, is a lifeline everyone can use.
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