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Digital Access and Equity

The Internet can connect us to the world from the comfort of our homes, but only if we have digital access. This requires not only a connection to broadband, but also an affordable internet subscription, a suitable device, and the skills to use it. Supporting this system is a digital infrastructure of sensors, hardware, and software called information and communication technologies (ICT) to collect, process, analyze, and store data, and route it among users. Together, digital technologies can help us expand our knowledge, improve service delivery, and facilitate new capabilities like e-commerce, remote work, computer visualization, and artificial intelligence. As a result, a growing number of communities are drafting digital equity and inclusion plans and working with internet service providers (ISPs) and the state and federal government to help make sure everyone has affordable access to broadband.

The Challenge

Our growing data needs are spawning new land uses such as data centers comprised of racks of servers stored in giant warehouses that drive the internet and cloud computing. The noise, energy consumption, and water consumption associated with these facilities is becoming an issue in some N.C. communities, so managing these impacts and ensuring appropriate facility location may be important.

Interest in government transparency and expanding the uses of government data are driving demand for open data. At the same time, increasing data availability is creating challenges with data security and privacy. Thus, as local governments develop their digital infrastructure to improve operations, they also need to draft policies and procedures to help manage data access and ensure its responsible use. Data collection and analysis can also perpetuate bias and facilitate discrimination, so monitoring and daylighting the assumptions used to collect, process, and analyze data is an essential function.

The growing functionality of digital technologies and public expectations about their availability pose significant opportunities and challenges for local government. Investing in information technology (IT) staffing as well as hardware and software is essential. Chief Technology Officers and other IT staff can help local governments maintain existing IT systems and also make sound enterprise IT investments, assess the total cost of ownership of new software, ensure the interoperability of different software programs, confirm the portability of data across platforms, and develop strong cybersecurity defenses to help protect against data theft and ransomware attacks. To do all this, experts suggest that local governments invest in IT at a level similar to the private sector (8%-13% of annual budget), as opposed to what they are currently spending (1%-3% on average).

Photos: Inside a Microsoft data center - CNET


Potential Responses


  • Draft/update local government technology plans, potentially in coordination with smart community strategic plans, to develop data policies, procedures, and apps
  • Prepare a digital equity plan for your community
  • Continue to support the “start-up ecosystem” through subsidizing co-working space, incubators, and networking events
  • Ensure local governments have up-to-data data privacy and protection policies and procedures


  • Invest in developing and coordinating new data platforms and apps
  • Host pitch events to help local governments vet new data technologies
  • Select promising technologies for pilot initiatives
  • Scale up successful pilots to the community and regional level


  • Track state performance in data job creation and business development
  • Host annual forum on the latest in data science in collaboration with academic, business, and institutional partners
  • Host regional and state awards program to recognize innovative local government use of technology


Example: Forsyth County

16% of households in Forsyth County, NC have no internet, and 10% have no computer (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). As a result, in 2021 Forsyth County drafted a digital equity plan titled Connecting Forsyth County. The plan provides a roadmap to achieve the vision of digital equality in the County that includes a robust digital infrastructure, a community that practices digital inclusion, and a community made up of digitally literate people. In so doing, it is designed to help the County combat poverty, improve health, and support educational attainment. To help implement the plan, WinstonNet and multiple partners received a $2 million grant from the City of Winston-Salem to provide digital skills training and PCs to 1,250 city residents, and to build out two learning labs at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center.

Forsyth County launches mobile app for residents to connect with government

Key Stats

  • 91% of jobs in North Carolina definitely or likely require digital skills (National Skills Coalition, 2023).
  • 90% of farmers responding to an Internet Connectivity for Farmers survey conducted by the N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office said that reliable high-speed internet is “extremely important” or “very important” to conduct business (NC BIO, 2020).
  • From 2017-2021, 85% of households in N.C. were subscribing to the internet (U.S. Census).
  • 430,000 households in North Carolina don’t have a PC or laptop (N.C. Office of Digital Equity and Inclusion, 2023).
  • N.C. cyber attacks increased about three fold from 2019 to 2020 due to less secure computer systems associated with remote work (Shannon Tufts, UNC School of Government).


Ben Hitchings, David Rouse, Anita Brown-Graham
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