Rural North Carolina’s Friend and Advocate: Part 1

Rural North Carolina’s Friend and Advocate: Part 1

As a resident of rural North Carolina, what issue resonates most with you? Broadband? Health care? Jobs? Water and Wastewater Infrastructure? Housing?

These are all priority areas that your fellow North Carolinians established in concert with the N.C. Rural Center, a statewide nonprofit with the mission to develop, promote, and implement sound economic strategies to improve the quality of life of rural North Carolinians. It's important work.

Did you know?

  • North Carolina is home to 80 rural counties.
  • North Carolina has more rural people than any other state except for Texas.
  • There are about 420 rural small towns in the state.
  • North Carolina has more small towns with fewer than 10,000 people than any other state except Pennsylvania.

Statewide input and collaboration resulted in the 2021 Advocacy Priorities, which fall into five major areas. “We don’t face any small challenges in rural North Carolina,” says Patrick Woodie, president of the N.C. Rural Center. “They are pretty daunting, but there’s remarkable consistency and agreement across the state about our priorities in all 80 of the rural counties that we serve.” 

Patrick shares information about each priority and its importance to the state in this 3-part series.

Expand Accessible, Affordable High-Speed Broadband

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has really exacerbated how devastating the lack of broadband is for families and communities,” says Patrick. “Broadband is now just part of 21st Century life. It has increasingly become how we go to the doctor. Telehealth has taken on an added significance and an added acceptability because of the circumstances of the pandemic. If you are trying to grow and run a small business and you do not have access to broadband, you are seriously hamstrung. If you are trying to work from home and the kids are trying to do remote learning and you don’t have the broadband to support that, it is a serious problem at the family level.”

Current Situation and Hope for the Future

  • Infrastructure for broadband in rural areas is nonexistent, for the most part.
  • With federal stimulus money and state funds, as much as a billion-dollar broadband investment may be reality within the General Assembly’s state budget.
  • A significant investment in broadband would help position rural North Carolina to better address priority areas, like education, health, and small business development.
  • Some funds are expected to be allocated to address digital literacy and affordability, important considering the gap in this area at the family level.
  • Most of the funding will go to private internet providers through the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Program, a grants program handled by the N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office, which is part of the state’s Department of Information Technology.

“We really believe – because of the pandemic, because of federal funds that are flowing to the state, because of the state being in a good position revenue-wise – that we are poised at a transformational moment for rural North Carolina,” says Patrick. “We could very well by the end of this legislative session see transformative investments made in some of those top priority areas, including broadband.”

Broadband for Agriculture

Such an investment would be a big boon to agriculture. “Technology does amazing things in the ag world these days and is really key to increasing the productivity of the land,” says Patrick. “Sufficient bandwidth to allow not only the downloading of information but the capability to upload information is equally important in the agricultural world. For example, one use is drone technology to survey crops and to understand where, how much, and how to apply fertilizer. If you don’t have the adequate broadband speeds to use the different technology apps that are available to farmers, that is a huge impediment to getting more productivity out of your land.”

In addition to the 2021 Advocacy Priority to expand accessible, affordable high-speed broadband, the N.C. Rural Center is also working to:

  • Stabilize and Transform Rural Health
  • Advance Sustainable and Affordable Housing
  • Revitalize Water and Wastewater Infrastructure
  • Invest in Stronger Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Systems

In parts 2 and 3 of “Rural North Carolina’s Friend and Advocate” Patrick Woodie will share information about each of these areas that are critical for improving the quality of life of North Carolinians.

By Leah Chester-Davis