Digital ‘homework gap’ addressed in Gov. McCrory’s state plan

By Terri Flagg - [email protected]

RALEIGH — A state broadband plan released by the N.C. Governor’s office Wednesday identified areas most impacted by lack of access to high-speed internet, with schools at the top of the list.

The high costs involved with broadband infrastructure make it difficult for internet service providers to provide access with competitive rates to rural areas with a lower population density.

As a result, lower-income, rural areas experience disproportionately lower rates of broadband deployment.

Prepared by the Department of Information Technology, the plan answers a charge by the General Assembly to assess the current status of broadband availability and use across the state and to analyze and offer strategies to achieve universal access.

The plan notes that the speeds of what is considered broadband continues to evolve, and uses a Federal Communications Commission threshold of 25 mbps(upload)/3 mbps (download).

According to data provided in the report, the state is ranked ninth in terms of broadband deployment, with 93 percent of households having access; only about 50 percent of its counties have a deployment rate equal to or greater than the US average of 90 percent, and 89 percent of N.C. households without access live in sparsely populated areas.

The report found that 0.01 to 0.18 percent of the Surry County population did not have access to broadband.

This differs from 2016 data from the FCC that shows 6.6 percent of the rural population in Surry County is without access to broadband.

The governor’s plan identifies that a phenomenon dubbed the “K-12 homework gap” as an area where lack of access “may have no greater impact.”

With increasing reliance on digital learning, students without access to broadband internet and broadband-related learning devices outside of school are at a disadvantage.

Noting that data on the homework gap is limited, the report estimates that between 50 and 75 percent of students have home access to broadband in most parts of Surry County and in a smaller area, 10 to 50 percent.

Recommendations include obtaining better data on the gap, expanding device delivery to low-income families and urging school and community-led outreach initiatives.

Justin Robertson, the technology coordinator for Mount Airy City Schools, indicated that those type of initiatives are already underway in the city schools.

“Some discussion has been had on the homework gap,” he said. “We’ve provided information on affordable internet plans for home users who qualify. I feel like we’ve made a good effort to provide avenues for students to work at school on assignments that they cannot complete at home.”

Space and technology are made available in the mornings and afternoons to students with limited home access, Robertson said.

“We also have after-school programs that network with some of our high-poverty families to see what technology needs they have at home and work to meet those in need.”

Other “specific issue areas” identified in the report are economic development, “telehealth, or the virtual delivery of a wide variety of health care services,” and public safety.

“Through the course of writing the plan, we found two common themes: active and engaged communities and their partnerships with private sector internet service providers are the biggest factors in bridging existing digital divides,” said State Chief Information Officer Keith Werner.

By Terri Flagg

[email protected]

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

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