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North Carolina Forum Focuses on Broadband Expansion

Nate Denny, the deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity with the N.C. Department of Information Technology Division of Broadband and Digital Equity spoke about broadband expansion.

(TNS) — Perry Memorial Library hosted a forum all about broadband on Monday evening.

Nate Denny, the deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity with the N.C. Department of Information Technology Division of Broadband and Digital Equity — a "mouthful" of a title, he joked — spoke about broadband expansion at the request of State Rep. Frank Sossamon, who was also in attendance.

Broadband isn't a form of technology, but refers to faster internet. The current standard is 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabit upload speed. Megabits are the unit of measurement for internet speed — one megabit is around 1 million bits, or eight megabytes, the more commonly known unit of measurement for file size.

Many people using older cables tend to have internet speeds of three to eight megabits per second — sufficient for checking emails, but not enough for streaming, among other functions. The COVID-19 pandemic showed the need for higher internet speeds — with whole families working, learning and accessing telehealth services on the same network — which oftentimes didn't have the requisite bandwidth, said Denny.

"This is no longer an option, no longer a luxury, to have high-speed internet" he said. "You need it for everything we do today... everything is happening online."

More than 300,000 households in the state don't have tablets or laptops at home, making accessing the internet that much harder. Nearly all jobs nowadays require a degree of digital literacy. More than a third of workers in the state don't have that literacy.

"We got a big problem," said Denny. Addressing that problem requires data — better data, at that. In 2021, the Federal Communications Commission published a map of addresses in North Carolina that either have low access to high-speed internet or none at all — underserved and unserved, respectively. At the time, if one address in a census block had access, all other addresses were considered to have access.

So, Denny showed the attendees that 2021 map, which had a few areas in the state's western, southern and eastern reaches as unserved. Vance County was shown as having no unserved or underserved areas. When Denny showed the map from a year later, when the math was improved, there were a few gasps. Nearly the entire state was covered in red — every county had some amount of unserved areas. Vance County was shown as mostly unserved.

"The core challenge here for access," said Denny, "is a capital investment problem."

The profit motive that drives so many private companies might discourage them from providing service to rural areas — there aren't enough addresses to recoup the investment, he said.

North Carolina was awarded $5.2 billion through the American Rescue Plan Act. The state allocated around a billion of that for providing broadband access. The state also formed Completing Access to Broadband, partnerships between the state and county governments. Two projects in Vance County have received awards — one Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology grant for Brightspeed née CenturyLink, and a CAB grant for ZiTel, LLC.

Around 3,300 households in the county, 16% of the total number of households, don't have access to broadband and 18% of households don't have internet access at all. Brightspeed's and ZiTel's projects, in total, aim to provide service to around 1,700 unserved households. Eventually, Denny said, his department intends to provide access to everybody.

ZiTel is putting $1.1 million into their project alongside $2.6 million from the NCDIT. Brightspeed won around $2 million for theirs.

An important thing to note is that "access" means "one is able to subscribe to a service." In other words, those high-speed internet connections still have a cost attached. The Affordable Connectivity Program, a federal initiative, cuts up to $30 off of an internet plan for eligible subscribers and $100 off of a laptop or tablet from participating providers.

There's a problem there. The ACP's funding runs dry next year. However, its impact is widely appreciated on both sides of the aisle in Washington, said Denny, so he hopes to "keep up the pressure" on the federal government to further fund for the program.

He encouraged attendees to reach out to their representatives towards that end as well. Denny's department is also in the process of creating a plan for middle-class households "layered" on top of the ACP, though nothing is official on that front yet.

Denny's goal is to enroll one million North Carolinians in ACP by December 2023. To date, his department has enrolled about 842,000. Go to to learn more about it.

"So, if in six years, someone doesn't have internet, find me," said Denny, "because I'll be in trouble. We can do this with the level of funding we've got, and not doing it with this kind of opportunity would be a failure."

Move quickly, protect taxpayer dollars and hold providers accountable — that's Denny's game plan.

"Most of our providers can recognize the amount of federal funding that's coming into play," said Denny, "and they've stepped up their game."

Grantees have up to two years to finish construction, though Denny has seen them complete those projects well before the deadline.

Brightspeed is on track to complete another project outside of Vance County by the third quarter of 2024, said Denny. A ZiTel representative at the last Vance County Board of Commissioners meeting said construction would begin sometime in the next 90 days and wrap up around eight to 10 months afterward.

Denny also gave attendees some homework in the form of a five-minute broadband survey at It also includes an internet speed test.

However, those without internet access may have some difficulty taking a survey online, as Denny said. They can text "internet" to or call 919-750-0553 for a paper survey. Denny also asked attendees to raise awareness of the ACP and provided a link with useful materials:

Indeed, the NCDIT is relying on community members to raise awareness, to a degree. One attendee asked why the department couldn't do so with paid employees. Funding-wise, the department's "hands are tied," said Denny. Public input on the NCDIT's plans are greatly appreciated, he said.

"Our processes will always have an opportunity for the public to weigh in," he said.

© 2023 Henderson Daily Dispatch, N.C. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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