Republican legislative leaders announced a bill Thursday aimed at bringing broadband internet to 85 rural counties through public-private partnerships and grants.
The bill is called the BRIGHT Futures Act, which is an acronym for:
- Broadband-enabled services
- Retail online services
- Internet of things
- Training & Education
Lawmakers said the goal of the legislation is to spread broadband Internet access to the rest of the state to influence these “BRIGHT Markets” through the use of high-speed Internet.
HB 68 will open up public-private partnership law in North Carolina to include projects to install digital infrastructure needed to support broadband in cases where the project will generate private job-creating investments.
The bill would also direct the Rural Infrastructure Authority program within the Rural Economic Development Division to give grants for digital infrastructure, in addition to the grants to construct water and wastewater facilities and other physical infrastructure needs.
In addition to the granting and public-private partnership changes, the bill would have the State Board of Science, Technology, and Innovation report recommendations to the state on how to establish and fund a BRIGHT Futures Innovation Fund for at least five years to provide “annual grants or loans to accelerate innovation by investment in enterprises in BRIGHT Market segments.”
Other segments of the Department of Commerce will also be directed to study and recommend ways to accelerate the growth of the BRIGHT Markets.
Rep. John Szoka (R-Cumberland) is the primary sponsor of the bill, and spoke on the bill at a press conference Thursday morning.
The bill’s “purpose and objective is to help people in rural and low-income areas connect to the economic development opportunities arising in the fastest-growing emerging markets of the 21st Century,” he said. He went on to say that he and the bill’s co-sponsors believe the best recipe for development in rural areas is to connect people to those Bright Markets through high-speed Internet.
“As a state, we can be proud of our many core assets and capabilities that position us to take advantage of these Bright Markets,” he said. “Yet, with all of these accomplishments and capabilities, we also face severe challenges.
“With 3.3 million North Carolina residents living in rural areas, we have the second largest rural population in the United States; only Texas has a larger population of rural residents. Many of these people are not currently able to connect to the same quality digital infrastructure and gigabit Internet speeds now being introduced in areas like Charlotte or Raleigh.”
“It’s a great next step for the state of North Carolina and the people of North Carolina and so many people have been working behind the scenes of this type of process of connecting the last mile for some time,” Lt. Gov. Dan Forest said.
“About four years ago I made a big bold statement that North Carolina would be the first state in the nation to have every single classroom in JK-12 public schools connected to high-speed broadband … and guess what? We are the first state in the nation that is going to have every classroom connected to high-speed broadband,” he said.
“No longer is it appropriate to only have physical infrastructure in a state that is taken care of by the government. I believe that government has a responsibility now to help with digital infrastructure,” he continued.
“It is another type of infrastructure in our state that does help connect our communities, it helps connect our people both to great education opportunities, but [also] great job opportunities. I’m going to stand before you today and make another big bold pronouncement and say that North Carolina, being the second largest rural state in America, will be the first state in America to have the last mile connected.”
Brian Balfour, executive vice president at the Civitas Institute, questions the role of the government in expanding broadband to the four corners of the state.
“While the intent to provide broadband service to rural areas may be admirable, we don’t believe it is the role of government to be involved in such a service,” he said. “It is not up to the government to use taxpayer dollars to pay for people’s Internet connection.”