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Public-private partnerships seen as best bet to expand rural broadband

Rural communities need to band together and pool government and private funding to extend broadband internet service to their homes and businesses, experts said Tuesday.

Broadband access was the first issue addressed during the annual Rural Day conference in Raleigh, and all agreed the future of many North Carolina counties – from student achievement to economic development – is both online and on the line.

“From the mountains to the coast and everywhere in between, access to affordable high-speed internet is the defining economic development infrastructure issue of our time,” Rural Center Chief Executive Patrick Woodie said. “Broadband matters for our education systems, health systems, small businesses, emergency services and local governments.”

Gov. Roy Cooper decried the “homework gap,” where students in rural areas can use the internet to study at school but have no access to it when they try to complete assignments at home.

“Broadband internet access is critical to economic development in our rural areas. A while ago, it was a nice thing to have; now, it is absolutely essential,” Cooper said.

Eric Cramer, president and chief executive of Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks in the northwest part of the state, said his company is creating a statewide co-op by overlaying fiber connections on old phone systems in pockets across the state and then expanding.

Each portion of that co-op has resulted from a local partnership, Cramer said, noting that such arrangements are the best way to tap into state and federal grants.

Lawmakers have included a new $10 million grant program in the state budget, which is expected to be approved this week.

“It’s not a lot, but it sets a successful framework,” Cramer said, noting North Carolina would be among the first states to offer such broadband infrastructure grants.

Susan Myers, managing director of Eastern Carolina Broadband in Lenoir County, agreed with Cramer that the effort starts locally.

“When were not able to convince the giant telcos to serve our rural area, we decided we were not going to wait,” Myers said. “We declared, whatever it takes to get high-speed internet to the rural areas, we will do it.”

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