By Becki Gray
The General Assembly will convene its biennial session Jan. 13. They’ll talk about how to get the economy back on its feet, address a learning gap in education, improve access to quality health care at an affordable price, put together a tax and spending plan and begin the centennial redistricting process.
But perhaps the most immediate and bipartisan issue they will address is broadband connectivity.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, North Carolinians were concerned about access to broadband. In many rural areas, there was no service. In many parts of North Carolina, the available service was inadequate. In urban areas, cost and reliable service was a concern. But with the pandemic, the broadband access problem became acute, as schools went to all online learning, employees were working from home, health care via telehealth was safer and more convenient and online commerce soared. Access to broadband is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity.
Communities have struggled with access to broadband for well over a decade. While a private market has developed, connecting that final mile remains unprofitable. Frustrations have some customers turning to government to solve the problem. Cities have tried building and maintaining their own broadband systems and failed, costing taxpayers millions, harming other services and still unable to offer a quality product.
In 2018, the General Assembly enacted the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technologyprogram, which provides $10 million in grants for expansion of broadband access in rural areas of the state, connecting households, businesses and agricultural operations in economically distressed counties. Session Law 2020-81 appropriated $1 million to establish a broadband satellite grant program. Session Law 2020-97 allocated $32 million of federal CARES money to GREAT grants to provide broadband service in unserved and underserved rural areas.
Government investments in broadband connectivity have helped and private companies’ investments have been significant, trillions of dollars, nationwide. But money alone hasn’t solved the problem. Any system must allow for competition and advancements on technology, so today’s broadband isn’t obsolete, outdated and useless tomorrow. Investments pay off when a fair playing field is provided that allow the private market the freedom to innovate, grow and compete. This is particularly true in the development and maintenance of broadband technology.
The problem before us is how to provide and maintain broadband connectivity with affordable, reliable service across all of North Carolina. The General Assembly recognized the need for internet connectivity a decade ago, and it has worked to put policies in place to open the market, invite private investments, and built an infrastructure that can grow with need and advances in technology. As the new legislative session begins, lawmakers should consider the following solutions:
• Leave broadband service and investments to private providers.
• Streamline permitting, remove unnecessary regulations.
• Remove obstacles to building wireless infrastructure on public property and public-rights-of-way, allow lease agreements for pole attachments that encourage developing infrastructure.
• Find solutions through open markets and competition, rather than government take-over.
• Offer a direct consumer subsidy, much like a voucher, that rural residents in unserved and underserved areas can use to purchase discounted broadband or devices.
• Put guardrails around the GREAT grant program to encourage innovation, focus on unserved areas, leave room for advancing technologies, provide grants instead of ongoing funding streams.
• Minimize and modernize fees at local and state level to avoid duplicative billing and keep costs low.
• Protect jobs and investment by upholding the state’s 2011 Level Playing Field Act, which regulates local government competition from private business.
The COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns and restrictions have made us dependent on the internet for work, for school, and for health care. That dependency won’t end when the pandemic ends. Everyone will be eager to get back to work, to get kids back in school, and to take care of our health. Access to reliable affordable broadband connectivity will become even more important for a recovering economy, addressing learning loss, changes in workforce options for remote working, rising costs of health care, and economic growth across all of North Carolina.
Access to reliable broadband at affordable costs is no longer optional; it’s necessary. Policymakers must address the problem now. North Carolina’s health care, education, workforce and economy depends on access to the internet. Technology won’t wait, and no part of North Carolina can be left behind.
Becki Gray is senior vice president of the John Locke Foundation.