MOREHEAD CITY — Expanding access to high-speed broadband internet, especially in rural areas, is a major focus of multiple state agencies this year.

That was the word from N.C. Department of Information Technology Secretary and Chief Information Officer Eric Boyette, who spoke before the Interstate 42 Corridor Commission Board of Directors Thursday at the Crystal Coast Civic Center. He said there are a number of initiatives in place to expand access to high-speed internet to all corners of the state.

“If you look at the state of North Carolina, we’re the seventh in the country as far as coverage of broadband, but if you really look at it, we’re also way behind in the rural areas,” Mr. Boyette said. “We’ve got areas in our state that are very behind in connectivity, so what are the options we are looking at?”

To help achieve the goal of expanding broadband, Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 91 in March promoting the expansion of access to high-speed internet and removing barriers to broadband infrastructure installation. The executive order created a task force on connecting North Carolina to look into opportunities for expanding broadband.

Additionally, NCDIT has a Broadband Infrastructure Office and a statewide broadband plan with the stated overarching goal for every North Carolinian to have affordable access to broadband service, if they so choose, by June 2021.

The state also participates in a number of programs for extra funding to support the expansion of broadband.

In 2018, North Carolina received $147 in federal funds to improve Interstate 95 and Highway 70 in eastern North Carolina through the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America Grant. As part of the INFRA grant, NCDIT will work with the state Department of Transportation to lay about 300 miles of fiber optic cable along both highways.

In addition, the state participates in the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology Program to fund eligible projects in economically distressed Tier One counties. Carteret County is a Tier Two county and thus not eligible to participate, but Mr. Boyette said the program has carried out 19 projects totaling $10 million across 20 counties in the past year.

Pending final approval of the state budget, the GREAT Program may expand this year to include Tier Two counties with up to $30 million available for projects.

Mr. Boyette said expanded access to broadband has a number of benefits, from helping the economy to improving education outcomes. The state is working to bridge the “homework gap” by ensuring students have access to high-speed internet at home to do online homework their teachers may assign.

“Our schools are very fortunate, we have our schools wired throughout the state, but our kids go home and our teachers go home, and they may not have connectivity at home,” Mr. Boyette said. “We assign homework to do online and the kid goes home and doesn’t have connectivity, so how do we support that?”

To that end, a grant is funding a pilot program in Robeson County to purchase mobile internet hotspots, known as a MiFi, students can check out from their school library and take home.

Broadband can also support the expansion of tele-health, in which patients can meet with doctors by video chat or instant messaging and get prescriptions filled over the internet.

“There’s a great opportunity in tele-health for us to expand where, in rural areas, they may not have to travel to see a physician because you can see a physician over your device, whatever device you have,” Mr. Boyette said.

NCDIT often partners with other state agencies to expand internet access and install broadband infrastructure. For example, when the N.C. Department of Transportation digs to build a roadway or carry out maintenance, workers will sometimes lay down conduit or fiber-optic cables at the same time. He said the department also keeps a good relationship with telecom providers to relay up-to-date information to residents.

Another major focus of NCDIT is cybersecurity, Mr. Boyette said. He said the department has a growing team of workers who help defend against cyber attacks, which are an increasingly common occurrence in today’s digital world.

NCDIT has resources on how to protect yourself online at it.nc.gov/statewide-resources/cybersecurity-and-risk-management.

Contact Elise Clouser at elise@thenewstimes.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.

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