The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more evident that having access to broadband internet is absolutely essential for our everyday living. Residents without access to reliable and affordable internet service are unable to connect to virtual services such as online education, telemedicine, e-commerce, working remotely from home, and even just staying updated on real-time news, weather, and other information.

For many rural communities like Moore County, expanding access to all residents continues to be a challenge. However, Moore County leadership has formed a task force committed to tackling that challenge. The newly-established Digital Inclusion Task Force (DITF) will determine where broadband infrastructure is needed and what market options are available for affordable internet to serve all residents.

The Moore County Board of Commissioners authorized the Task Force’s creation on October 5, with the primary goal of developing a Broadband Inclusion Plan that can be submitted to the state for grant funding consideration.

“It is putting the right people in the room to discuss where we want to work (in expanding broadband),” said Chris Butts, Moore County’s director of information technology. “The broadband inclusion plan will help us pinpoint areas we know we will want to focus on…This is starting to get our ducks in a row so when [grant] money is approved, we are ready to go.”

In addition to several representatives from various departments of Moore County, the 10-member DITF will also include Natalie Hawkins, Executive Director of Partners in Progress economic development.

“From an economic development perspective, broadband is important to Moore County for a number of reasons, especially post-COVID,” said Hawkins.

The pandemic forced a number of small businesses to pivot to online transactions, whether in sales or simply taking orders for a restaurant’s curbside pick-up. These types of services require reliable internet connections, Hawkins said. Moore County is also in a prime position to market itself as an attractive place to live and work from home. Remote workers who may be considering relocation here will need to know that Moore County can accommodate their connectivity needs.

“Expanding broadband into residential areas allows people to work remotely,” Hawkins said. “Think of Apple and Google, and other big investments, when you look at what is going on north of us in Apex, Holly Springs, even Chatham County. When you see those large job announcements happening up there, those executives can live anywhere they want if they can get to the office in an hour or so.”

“This is a great opportunity for us. With hybrid work environments for when you are not going into the office every day and when you do, you can drive straight up U.S. 1 and be in Raleigh in an hour.”

According to the Moore County Extension Office, there are about 5,936 households, or 5.7%, in the county that lack access to the internet. Moore County covers almost 700 square miles with about 49 percent of the population living in the rural areas outside of any of the county’s eleven incorporated towns. Broadband is currently defined as the ability to download data at 25 Mbps and upload data at 3 Mbps using an internet connection.

In Moore County’s agricultural communities, reliable internet connectivity provides access to everything from updated weather information for farmers, to monitoring commodity prices, and communicating with partners in the supply chain and transportation industries.

Education is another focus area for broadband service to ensure all students have access to resources they need when they’re at home. The overarching goal is to increase digital literacy, an important component for workforce development.

“It is more than running fiber or high speed internet in front of a business or home. It is about what we can do to make sure our residents are more digitally literate and have access to the resources they need,” said Butts.

“I look at it as an investment in the future,” Hawkins added. “A lot of economic development is making sure our communities are making the investments they need in infrastructure needed today and tomorrow. And that is what broadband is, infrastructure.”

To help identify gaps in broadband coverage throughout North Carolina including Moore County, the NC Broadband Infrastructure Office is collecting information from an online survey to get an accurate assessment of where broadband service is still needed in the state. To participate, visit https://bit.ly/3uTfcTv

(Original article by Laura Douglass, The Pilot)