Chances are you’ve heard the phrase “digital divide” when it comes to access to high-speed internet in NC – especially since the beginning of the pandemic, when schools and many jobs went remote.
What is the digital divide? The phrase is defined as “the gap between those who have access to technology, the internet, and digital literacy training and those who do not,” according to the NC Broadband Infrastructure Office, which formed to help NC achieve digital literacy. Their goal is for every NC household to have broadband service by June 2021.
For reference, a recommended broadband speed for Netflix is 3 Mbps (Megabits per second) for standard and 5 Mbps for HD. A single person using streaming services needs a speed of about 25 Mbps. 59.4% of state households subscribe to at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Across the state
- About 20% of households have no internet subscription.
- 75,000 students lack access to high-speed internet because connection lines haven’t been installed in their rural communities.
- The bill for internet averages $60 per month in NC.
While the digital divide affects populations of all ages across the state in both urban and rural areas, we’re digging into broadband challenges here in WNC.
In Buncombe County
- According to the state’s Broadband Indices, .19% of Buncombe County residents had no available internet providers in 2017.
- .24% only had a DSL option.
- That’s better than surrounding counties. In Jackson County, for example, 6.77% of residents had no internet providers, and over 50% had DSL-only options.
- In the last Census, over 30% of households in Buncombe County had no internet subscription.
The pandemic has highlighted the crisis caused by the digital divide, especially for school-age children. While many public schools have fiber connections through nonprofit MCNC, they don’t provide the “last mile” of connection to households. So what are schools + NC doing to address the gap?
- In 2018, the General Assembly created Growing Rural Economics with Access to Technology (GREAT) Grants and BAND-NC Grants. Federal ReConnect Loans and Grants are also available.
- State legislators are discussing vouchers to cover the cost of broadband for families who qualify for free or reduced lunches.
- While there are restrictions on municipalities creating broadband networks, they can build fiber rings to increase access.
- Schools are issuing hot spots, devices that can connect to the internet using cellular technology, and laptops or iPads to students. Many schools also provide Wi-Fi on buses.