With an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 109 to 8, the North Carolina House yesterday afternoon passed the “BRIGHT Futures Act” (House Bill 68) to accelerate the build-out of digital infrastructure in rural and other underserved areas of our state.
Representative Szoka was the primary sponsor of the bill.
The goal is to bring greater economic prosperity to more folks by way of a widespread connection to Broadband, Retail online services, the “Internet of Things,” GridPower, Healthcare, and Training and Education (known by the acronym “BRIGHT”).
“Rural and underserved areas have historically been left behind when key technology and infrastructure have been required for economic development,” said Representative Szoka. “This bill clarifies the ability of Public-Private Partnerships to find ways to develop this critical infrastructure, and continues the tradition that led to innovative business models in the past.”
The legislation addresses gaps in digital infrastructure (currently affecting more than 3 million North Carolinians in 85 counties) by directing economic development agencies to report directly on how effectively these programs are in accelerating innovation and jobs in these markets.
The expansion of digital infrastructure will provide long-term benefits by encouraging population growth in rural regions, permitting work-from-home opportunities that increase per-capita income and growing the state’s Gross Domestic Product.
Ensuring connectivity of underserved areas will help students learn from home, allow medical professionals to provide telehealth options and create infrastructure jobs by enabling local governments to lease excess infrastructure to internet providers.
The legislation also directs the Office of Science, Technology, and Innovation, within the Department of Commerce for recommendations on how best to establish BRIGHT Futures Fund that could operate over the next five years to provide annual grants or loans to accelerate innovation and investment in BRIGHT Market enterprises. House Bill 68 allows local governments to partner with private industry without creating a mandate, subsidy, or tax. It does not allow cities or counties to provide broadband services directly or compete with private industry.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest praised the legislation as being the next step in the process of connecting all North Carolinians.
“Our state will already be the first in the nation to have every classroom connected to high-speed broadband,” said Lt. Governor Forest. “The BRIGHT Futures Act builds on the hard work and forward thinking that the General Assembly has dedicated to connecting our schools to now finish the last mile that has separated our rural communities from our urban corridors.”
“North Carolina is blessed with some of the greatest infrastructure for innovation and economic development, from Research Triangle Park to a statewide fiber network, to our universities, healthcare facilities, and private sector engines of innovation, but we can no longer allow vast portions of our state to fall behind because that infrastructure does not reach them,” he continued. “This bill sets a vision and a roadmap that can organize the great forces of innovation in a way to connect everyone in the state.”
Companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate and awaits that august body’s consideration.