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North Carolina Moves Ahead With Broadband Equity Project Grants

North Carolina is making $14 million available to nonprofits, government agencies and others as part of the Digital Champion grants to expand digital equity. Some 230 applicants have applied.

North Carolina is moving forward with a digital equity grant program to bring broadband access into more underserved homes, as part of a larger mission to have all of these homes connected to the Internet by 2029.

The North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s (NCDIT) Office of Digital Equity and Literacy will award $14 million in grants to community organizations such as local nonprofits, libraries, educational institutions and others. The funding, to begin this spring, is known as Digital Champion grants, and uses federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Some 230 applicants applied before the Jan. 22 deadline, requesting more than $150 million in funding. Each applicant was able to apply for up to $400,000 per county served with a maximum application request of $1.5 million, said Nate Denny, deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity at NCDIT.

The project follows the state’s larger aim to close the digital divide by both building out infrastructure, and designing initiatives to get residents connected. To do this, NCDIT developed its Digital Equity Plan, which identifies “priority populations” like the elderly, veterans, low-income residents and others who tend to have lower Internet connectivity rates than the rest of the population. Part of the process of developing the plan included a digital access survey that asked people what was preventing them from getting online.

“They either said the Internet was not available or the Internet was too expensive were the two most common responses,” said Margaret Woods, deputy director of digital equity and literacy at NCDIT, in a Dec. 4 webinar, adding that, a number of residents reported the availability of Wi-Fi service but that it does not meet their needs.

Projects selected for the Digital Champion grants must address at least one of five areas of focus: digital literacy and skills training; technical support; providing digital devices like laptops or tablets; the development of online content to advance inclusivity and accessibility; and perhaps most important of all, addressing the cost of high-speed Internet.

In a number of areas across the state, survey respondents reported a lack of Internet service providers.

“People had to go with the service provider that was available even if it was very expensive, or the service wasn’t what they wanted,” said Woods.

But, there’s also a need for more public Wi-Fi in downtown areas, she noted.

“We heard this a lot, particularly in rural areas,” she added. “If the Internet wasn’t at home, needing to go somewhere to access Internet. But the kinds of places you could go were pretty limited.”

The lack of infrastructure — and build-out of that infrastructure — is funded through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program (BEAD) administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The 2021 federal infrastructure package provided some $42.45 billion for broadband infrastructure development, available to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. The BEAD program awarded North Carolina $1.53 billion.

The primary purpose for the BEAD funding is for infrastructure, said Emily Gangi, policy director for the Division of Broadband and Digital Equity, speaking on the webinar. The funds can also be used for upgrades to infrastructure provided for “community anchor institutions” like schools, health-care facilities, libraries and public Wi-Fi networks. Remaining funding can also be used for “digital equity activities.”

“So, everything else that’s necessary for folks to get on the Internet. That involves affordability, access to devices to connect to the Internet. And the digital skills that they need to do so safely and effectively,” said Gangi.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.