Determining where broadband infrastructure is needed and what market options are available for affordable internet service are two of the main focus areas for the newly established Digital Inclusion Task Force.
The Moore County Board of Commissioners authorized the group’s creation on Oct. 5, with the primary goal of developing a Broadband Inclusion Plan that can be submitted to the state for grant funding consideration.
“There is significant broadband funding in the (proposed) state budget,” said County Chairman Frank Quis, noting the General Assembly has not approved the current fiscal year’s budget as of early October. “What can we do to hit the ground running when the budget is passed and make sure we are not the last to apply for grants, the last to get signed up with contractors?”
Chris Butts, Moore County’s director of information technology, said the task force will serve that purpose.
“It is putting the right people in the room to discuss where we want to work (in expanding broadband),” he said. “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 money is approved, we are ready to go.”
Appointed task force members include Butts and Quis; Wayne Vest, Moore County Manager; Chief Dep. Richard Manesss, Moore County Sheriff’s Office; Bryan Phillips, Moore County Public Safety; Deborah McGiffin, Moore County Cooperative Extension; Kendt Eklund, Moore County Schools; Libba Thomas, Sandhills Community College; Natalie Hawkins, Partners in Progress; and Keith Conover, NC Broad Infrastructure Office. Quis will serve as the county board’s liaison to the task force.
Moore County has also been allocated around $18 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act funds. Broadband access and water/sewer needs were prioritized early and have stayed at the forefront of countywide concerns throughout the pandemic, and will likely be eligible for federal recovery fund expenditures.
“From an economic development perspective, broadband is important to Moore County for a number of reasons, especially post-COVID,” said Hawkins, executive director of Partners in Progress and the county’s lead economic development officer.
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.
“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 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.”
Agricultural interests are also highly impacted by broadband or, as the case may be, the lack thereof.
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.
According to the Moore County Extension Office, there are about 5,936 households in the county that lack access to the internet. However, this may be an undercounted number.
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations require broadband companies to report the census tracks they serve, not the number of actual people the company services in a specific census track. In other words, not everyone who lives in a reported census track necessarily has access to broadband, particularly if the broadband provider only services a portion of that census track.
Butts echoed that concern during Tuesday’s meeting. He said FCC maps may show a line along a main road where there is internet connectivity, but houses on nearby secondary roads may not be able to access that line. There are also concerns about affordability for online services.
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.
To help identify gaps in broadband coverage, the Extension Office is collecting information from an online survey to get an accurate assessment of where broadband service is still needed in the county. To participate, visit https://bit.ly/3uTfcTv
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.”
“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.”
Broadband is currently defined as the ability to download data at 25 Mbps and upload data at 3 Mbps using an internet connection. If you’re curious about your own internet provider speed, you can check it for free online at https://www.speedtest.net/ It is useful to test your service at different times of the day because it may be slower during peak use hours (7-11 p.m.). If you’re using your cell phone, make sure it is connected to your home or business wi-fi; otherwise you are testing your cellular connection speed.
In other action on Tuesday, Oct. 5, the Moore County Board of Commissioners:
*Sitting as East Moore Water District Board of Directors: approved minutes and amendment to contract with LKC Engineering for the Morrison Bridge Road Water Main Replacement Project
*Proclaimed October 3-9, 2021, as Mental Illness Awareness Week
*Revised the residency districts for the Moore County Board of Commissioners
*Approved a contract with Ilderton Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep-Ram for purchase of nine county vehicles
*Appointed Keith Cameron, Clifton Frye, Larry Coe, and Paul Rizzi as ETJ members of the Cameron Planning Board