As the focus on connecting communities through high-speed broadband service continues to grow, a number of different approaches have taken shape. Some places have enacted new laws offering tax incentives to service providers, and other places have launched new ways to size up the problem.
In North Carolina, engaging the public is an increasingly useful tool in the larger broadband toolbox. What originally took the form of a registry is now an interactive map that is drawing in more input by the day.
Since officials with the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office, within the larger Department of Technology (DIT), launched the public input tool in late May, it has garnered input from around 1,000 citizens and counting. Wesley King, a spokesperson for the office, said the new approach is already wildly more successful than the tool’s former iteration they called the “lack-of-service registry.”
“It more or less did the same thing. It asked a lot more specific questions, but for what we are trying to do with this map, just identifying these people, we really wanted to keep it as simple as possible,” he explained.
By adding citizen information to the broadband mapping tool, the state broadband office is better equipped to reach out to local leaders and provide them with the resources to fill the gaps. Despite the positive engagements so far, King said there is “always room for growth” and room to spread the word about the program.
What King said is different about the ground-up approach is that the state is empowering local and regional partners rather than using blanket prescriptions to try to influence change. With the help of the technical assistance team, local leaders have access to not only technical advice, but policy and data expertise and a mainline to service providers.
“Too often we see state agencies get in the way of and not be able to fully serve a community the way the community needs to be served, with a 50,000-foot prescriptive approach. What our office does is really tries to focus on and empower the county and community leader to be able to make the changes that need to happen locally,” he said.
While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) already supplies a broadband speed map, King said officials wanted data that was aggregated from the bottom up to show in greater detail where the state’s unserved and underserved communities are.
When asked where the state puts the most emphasis on the need for connectivity, King cited the greatest need in rural communities where students might have to go out of their way to complete basic online homework assignments. The schools in the state may be what King described as “fast” and “connected,” but the surrounding communities can leave something to be desired.
“Our schools specifically are fast and they are connected; however, what we hear and where some of that pressure comes from are stories about students in rural areas around communities that have to come into town and sit at public hotspots or libraries to do their homework,” he said. “Identifying some of those gaps in rural communities is key to turning North Carolina into a gig state, and that is really what we are focusing on.”