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Cooper announces state's first digital equity program to increase internet access

Governor Roy Cooper launched the state's first digital equity grant program, which will help rural areas receive high-speed internet, photographed Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022.

On Sept. 27, Gov. Roy Cooper launched the state’s first digital equity program to help North Carolinians access high-speed internet. 

The digital equity grant program will help citizens obtain digital services and access digital literacy resources. 

The multi-phased program will invest $24 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for collaborative digital equity projects. These funds are administered by the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Office of Digital Equity and Literacy. 

"We want more North Carolinians to get the tools and knowledge they need to connect to high-speed internet and to use it to transform their communities and their lives,” Cooper said in the Sept. 27 press release.

According to the NCDIT, at least 1.1 million North Carolina households lack access to high-speed internet, cannot afford it or do not have the literacy skills needed to navigate the digital economy.

“There’s no internet in patches of areas,” Jay Parker, partner and broker at Weaver Street Realty in Carrboro, said. “Not having that level of communication really can impact people's safety in terms of being able to get the news, get alerts.”

The grants are a part of Cooper’s plan which aims to provide high-speed internet to 95 percent of North Carolinian households. 

Cooper's press release said the program was implemented to positively impact low-income households, residents in rural areas, aging residents, formerly incarcerated individuals, veterans, people with disabilities, residents with a language barrier and racial or ethnic minority groups.

For the first phase of the program, 10 to 15 state government entities will receive funding from $10 million in federal funding. Institutions will use the money to develop or expand digital inclusion programs. 

The non-competitive grant funding also encourages collaborative partnerships, according to the press release. Each organization to receive a grant will be given a maximum amount of $2 million to complete projects by 2024. 

Applicants must be an entity of the N.C. state government and applications will be accepted until Oct. 28 at 5 p.m. 

“We are excited to collaborate with digital equity experts across the state through this new grant program,” NCDIT Secretary and State Chief Information Officer Jim Weaver said in the press release. “These strategic partnerships at the state and local level will help drive meaningful and measurable change for North Carolinians in the next two years.”

The second phase of the program, which will launch in the winter of 2023, includes a competitive grant process using the remaining $14 million from the total $24 million in federal funding. 

This phase will open applications for municipalities and nonprofits, community-based organizations and key stakeholder groups for local digital inclusion projects and device distribution.

Projects could include distributing computers, laptops and other types of devices that people need to use the internet and hotspots. Digital literacy skills and training may be implemented to ensure residents know how to use their internet and computers meaningfully, according to Annette Taylor, director of the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy.

“In our office, we're focusing on affordability, accessibility and availability,” Taylor said.

Michael Phillips, the owner of Phillips Farm, said accessing high-speed internet has been difficult. 

Phillips said it took years to receive internet at his location in Cary. He said that while every highway and road beside his property had internet access, the farm did not  —  noting that he felt the lack of access was targeted. 

“If you own most of the property on a road, they just look at it as they're not going to make money on you,” Phillips said. 

He said he believes the digital equity grant program would be great for his farm.

“If they could actually get full landlines and solid connectivity, I'm sure that would help a lot of folks,” Phillips said. 

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Residents can attend information sessions on Oct. 4, Oct. 5 and Oct. 20. Additional information can be found on the NCDIT website.


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