Eric Boyette, secretary and chief information officer for the State of North Carolina, spoke on Wednesday, June 20, at the 2018 North Carolina ConnectHomeUSA Summit. ConnectHomeUSA is focused on closing the digital divide in public housing. Boyette took a few minutes to discuss inclusion with DigitalCharlotte at the event, which took place at Queens University of Charlotte.
What are some of your concerns about reliable internet access for North Carolinians?
One of the concerns we have is that it’s not only access, it’s a subscription rate. So in a lot of the areas that are provided with service, we’re not seeing a subscription rate that we should see — what we would think we should see. It’s about 50 percent right now. One of the things is the educational — what’s available, what does it mean when I can’t subscribe. So, educational, what can we do with the internet and what are some options that are coming. Some new things are coming, telehealth, things like that. We really need to do a great job of educating about our system.
What hurdles does the state need to clear before we feel confident about widespread access?
What we’re doing right now is to try to recognize where we have gaps. Before we set goals we have to understand what those gaps are. We’re trying to get everyone to input their data for our speed map so we can see rates statewide. Census block data is great but if you have one [faster] connection in that block, that counts for everyone [in that block]. We really want to understand, ‘what do we have, what are we trying to achieve, and with what partners?’ The two non-profits we saw today are E2D and Kramden Institute. How do we solve that problem? As Pat Millen, executive director of E2D, said today, it’s solvable.
In your visits to North Carolina communities, what experiences stand out for you?
We delivered about 50 PCs to Fairfield Elementary in Edgecombe County. That was probably the first place where I was part of an actual hands-on [PC distribution]. When you sit down with those kids and you listen to them and watch them, you hear that energy. The kid that I was helping actually stopped and looked at me and he said, ‘Am I dreaming? Is this real?’ So that really makes an impact on you as a person. It connects you to, ‘what are we hearing and what are we doing?’ Our goal is to make that divide go away. Those stories are great, and our broadband team really gets out and works with communities on how can we solve problems without funding. That’s where we really strive on the policy side. But those kids, this is our youth, our future, and if we don’t look after our youth, we’re not doing our job.
Have you encountered any shining beacons for digital inclusion among North Carolina communities?
Charlotte. We’re here. They are the shining beacon. As Pat Millen mentioned earlier today, they really have taken this digital divide and made progress. They are the centerpiece for our state and we are using the framework here to spread to other counties and to other communities. To be able to say, ‘here’s an example.’ It’s been great. It’s been great to watch it grow, and it’s been great to be a part of it. I’m very appreciative to be a part anytime there’s an opportunity to be here. I try to be here to learn myself as well.
What Charlotte initiatives have you been impressed by?
I was here previously for an entire day, and at West Charlotte [High School] their kids actually come in and refurbish PCs. They’re not in the technology field — they’re doing it for themselves. They want to give back, and after that, you see the kids, the fruit of the kids coming in to receive those machines, and just that emotional attachment, and how they’re so appreciative. The double minimum wage was amazing to me. So ETD did a great job, a great partnership with the school system. So kudos to everybody for that partnership.
Why do you think Charlotte leads in digital inclusion initiatives, in comparison to a high-tech area like the Triangle?
If you look at the Charlotte area, the divide is more important. If you look at the way they tried to create the basis to solve that divide, in Raleigh and some of those areas the gaps are not as wide. The need was more so in Charlotte, so that’s why you see the emphasis here.
What digital inclusion issues are overlooked in North Carolina?
The thing that I think people forget is the health side — telehealth. They think about entertainment, they think about hitting Google. What can I search, what can I buy. But they forget the health side. So we’re really trying to inform people that they have health options.
Is telehealth more of a rural or urban issue?
It’s actually both, but you’ll see it more in the rural side because of the distance between medical facilities. It’s both because of the awareness. For the rural areas it’s really important because of the distance.
What is the State of North Carolina’s position on net neutrality?
We work hard with our vendors to understand their position. Our position is we really want full access for all of our citizens. Our citizens expect it. Our vendors are very upfront about their approach and they they have no intent on any throttling at all for any of our services. We’re very supportive of any measures to monitor. But we’re also partners with our vendors. So we want to make sure they understand that what we expect from them. Here’s the level of service that we expect for our citizens. The good thing is, we have great partners.