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As North Carolina adjusts to the new normal during the COVID-19 outbreak, communities, especially in rural areas, face specific challenges, including the unmet infrastructure need of high-speed broadband access. In an op-ed for the News & Observer, Charlotte Observer, and Durham Herald Sun, Cal Cunningham lays out his priorities for ensuring North Carolinians in rural parts of the state are still able to telework, connect with teachers online, access telemedicine, and receive mental health support while the COVID-19 pandemic forces people to stay home.
Growing up in Lexington and going overseas with the Army Reserve, Cal saw the power of neighbors helping neighbors through challenges. He writes that expanding access to rural broadband “will help businesses and families alike, and ensure that more North Carolinians can access needed online services during times like these and when, God willing, our lives return to normal.”
As Congress addresses many important issues during this crisis, Cal understands that providing relief for rural communities in North Carolina also means expanding high-speed broadband: “There will be many priorities as Congress considers its next moves, from expanding paid sick leave to expanding use of our military medical personnel to expand capacity nationwide. Let’s make sure further relief also includes plans to specifically help underserved and rural communities by expanding high-speed broadband.”
Read more below.
News & Observer: Cal Cunningham: COVID-19 underscores a rural NC need
By Cal Cunningham – April 6, 2020
In the Army, we address a crisis by identifying critical objectives, planning a response, marshaling resources and communicating the plan clearly. The threat of COVID-19 demands that same leadership and good judgement, not only as our country addresses the health and economic impacts of this pandemic, but also as we adjust to the way it has upended the way we live.
Right now, many employees around North Carolina are working from home. Students, mine included, are connecting with teachers online to continue learning. To prevent unnecessary travel to and traffic at our medical centers and hospitals, many are getting checkups via telemedicine appointments. Those struggling are also using the internet to connect with mental health professionals to cope during this traumatic time for many families.
But too many can’t do these things because our country hasn’t kept up with the connectivity needs of every community. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in 2018, about half of North Carolina households didn’t have high-speed broadband because of cost barriers or because they didn’t have the skills or a device to use it. In the same year, more than a quarter of a million households didn’t have access to broadband. And we know these numbers may even be an underestimate, and may not account for places with slow speeds.
This public health crisis will require additional federal action, and when Congress reconvenes, we must prioritize ensuring that rural communities are getting the infrastructure investment they need — including high-speed broadband.
We know Gov. Roy Cooper’s Task Force On Connecting North Carolina continues its work to expand internet access. Here’s how the federal government can help North Carolinians in rural and unserved communities without access to high-speed broadband.
First, service providers must act to make sure there are no service disruptions for those struggling to make monthly payments during this crisis, which will hit financially for many. I applaud Governor Cooper’s executive order mandating that water and electric providers not cut off service during this time, and at his strong urging, all internet service providers that serve our state should follow suit. It is promising that a number of major internet and phone carriers across the country are taking steps to keep families connected regardless of ability to pay, and I hope that will serve as an example to others.
Next, let’s quickly boost funding for existing federal grant programs, including those at the FCC and the Department of Agriculture, that help service providers build infrastructure to expand services, and counties and localities the ability to extend service to those who can’t afford it. To get high-speed broadband to the most people quickly, let’s be technology agnostic and use whatever tools will most quickly extend service to more families. This would help ensure more people can access telemedicine services or online learning resources for children in the home.
Finally, let’s use the next phase of investment to help the nation get back on its feet to meet the unmet infrastructure needs of our time, not just high-speed broadband but also bringing schools, roads and bridges up to date. Doing so would save and create well-paying jobs putting people to work on these needed projects.