Closing North Carolina’s Digital Divide with the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF)
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently announced that as part of its new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Auction, nine (9) North Carolina broadband providers have been awarded more than $166 million dollars in support to build out broadband infrastructure to over 155,000 currently unserved locations across the state.
According to the FCC, RDOF will “expand broadband to over 10 million rural Americans, including 5.2 million unserved homes and businesses…allocating $9.2 billion to close the digital divide in 49 states.” 99.7% of these locations will receive broadband with speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps, with an overwhelming majority (over 85%) receiving gigabit-speed broadband.
RDOF will play a critical role in bridging North Carolina’s digital divide. The FCC requires completion of these builds within six (6) years; however, if the North Carolina Legislature implements a fairer, more effective process to govern utility pole attachments and access to broadband infrastructure, it will help broadband providers deploy infrastructure faster. This is especially true in rural areas where broadband access does not exist today.
Much of our state’s broadband infrastructure hinges upon the utility poles that play a key role in connecting our rural residents to reliable, high-speed internet. Currently, broadband providers face unpredictable costs and delays when attaching broadband cables to existing utility poles, many of which are already unable to handle new lines or need replacement altogether. This is particularly a challenge in North Carolina’s sparsely populated rural communities, where internet providers may require access to multiple poles per home to build-out broadband and these attachments are often on poles owned by electric cooperative and municipal electric utilities.
Fortunately, the North Carolina General Assembly has the opportunity this legislative session to reform the complex and costly pole attachment process into one that is fairer, faster, and more cost-effective, which would facilitate a quicker broadband build-out process.
Internet access is now a critical component of our social and economic life. The existing inequity of having nearly 472,000 North Carolinians without access to reliable, high-speed internet, the majority of whom live in our state’s rural communities is untenable.
We must continue to work together to bring reliable, high-speed broadband access to more rural North Carolinians and the General Assembly can take critical steps to make this vision a reality more quickly for our friends and neighbors.