CARTERET COUNTY — The Carteret County Economic Development Foundation has been awarded a $5,000 grant to develop a comprehensive, countywide digital inclusion plan that will help guide future expansion of broadband technology.
The foundation’s board of directors announced Wednesday it was included in the first round of recipients for a Building a New Digital Economy in North Carolina, or BAND-NC, grant from the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University.
The IEI has partnered with the N.C. Department of Information Technology’s Broadband Infrastructure Office and others to create the new grant program designed to help close the “digital divide” in North Carolina.
“This grant from the Institute for Emerging Issues comes at a very opportune time for Carteret County,” foundation Chairperson Ed Stack said in a release announcing the grant award. “Our Foundation Board of Directors has identified addressing the county’s broadband challenges as our highest programmatic priority this year, and the grant will allow us to jumpstart the development of a countywide plan to address the broadband needs of all Carteret County residents .”
Maggie Woods, program and policy manager for the IEI, said the purpose of a digital inclusion plan is to identify and map the digital needs of a community and outline strategies to meet those needs. The exact scope of a plan varies by community, but most generally address the following key points:
- Access to affordable, high-speed internet.
- Access to a device that meets needs, typically computers or laptops.
- Developing digital skills and literacy.
The goal of the Economic Development Foundation is to become the first rural county in North Carolina to develop a digital inclusion plan. Mecklenburg County, which is home to Charlotte, is currently the only county in the state with such a plan.
Carteret County Economic Development Director Don Kirkman said the hope is for Carteret County to serve as a model for other rural counties developing their own digital inclusion plans. The ultimate goal of the IEI and Broadband Infrastructure Office is to make North Carolina the first state in the nation with a digital inclusion plan for every county.
“We want to go beyond just the goal of inclusion and identify the entire spectrum of broadband needs in the county,” Mr. Kirkman said of the purpose of the digital inclusion plan.
A major component of the plan will be identifying geographic locations in the county where there is no or sub-optimal internet access. The plan will outline other challenges, including cost, that further limit internet access. Finally, the plan will also take inventory of the county’s existing broadband infrastructure.
Mr. Kirkman said broadband internet – defined as a minimum of 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed – has become an essential utility, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic forcing many to take up remote work and schooling. He said rural areas, where high-quality internet access is often not widespread, are at risk of falling behind in an increasingly digital world.
“The pandemic has elevated the challenges in rural areas, especially,” he said.
High-quality, broadband internet is also important in attracting new residents to live in and tourists to vacation in Carteret County. A key part of the county’s economic development strategy is attracting more remote workers.
“Without reliable, affordable, high-speed internet, we won’t be competitive in a variety of different areas,” Mr. Kirkman said.
The county will likely pursue other funding sources, including another anticipated round of BAND-NC funding in the spring, once it finishes the digital inclusion plan and is ready to implement some of the strategies for expanding broadband internet access.
The Economic Development Foundation has engaged Deborah Watts, principal with Broadband Catalysts, as a consultant and project manager to facilitate the development of the Carteret County plan, which is anticipated to be completed by early 2021.
“There is no question that broadband is essential infrastructure in the 21st century. The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of high-speed internet to education at every level, health care and remote working,” Ms. Watts said. “Many North Carolinians, including those in Carteret County, face significant barriers to affordable internet services, and the plan is intended to identify those hurdles and describe a range of solutions.”
Contact Elise Clouser at firstname.lastname@example.org; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.