N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein wants lawmakers to use millions won from a settlement with Dish Network for violating telemarketing laws to expand internet access for students, but legislative leaders are so far non-committal on the proposal.

In December, a federal appeals court agreed with a trial court’s judgment that held Dish Network accountable for millions of unwanted calls the company made to people on the Do Not Call list. The settlement will award $210 million to the federal government and co-plaintiff states. North Carolina will receive $13.4 million. 

Stein sent a letter to lawmakers last week calling on them to use the settlement money to help students get connected, the importance of which has been driven home by the pandemic. 

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, many students and teachers throughout the state have had to transition to remote learning and virtual classrooms,” Stein wrote. “This situation has underscored the vital need for access to sufficient broadband. It has also highlighted some of the disparities that exist in our state, particularly in more rural areas, between broadband haves and have-nots.”

Stein said the virtual educational opportunities are next to impossible for students who can’t access high-speed internet at home.

“We need to bridge these digital divides as much as possible in order to provide students and teachers with the tools they urgently need during these difficult times,” he wrote.

The attorney general is right to worry about educational disparities during this time, says Jon Sanders, research editor and senior fellow, Regulatory Studies at the John Locke Foundation.

“The most pressing and immediate educational need right now is to end the unscientific practice of keeping students out of in-person instruction. Those are exacerbating learning disparities without reason. Get the kids back into schools now while policymakers decide on ways to increase broadband access in the future,” Sanders said.

Those ways, he said, should definitely include streamlining permitting and removing other unneeded state and local regulatory obstacles to building wireless infrastructure on public property and public rights-of-way.

“Help enable private providers to work, don’t block them or play favorites.”

House Speaker Tim Moore’s office told Carolina Journal it will examine the request.

“Lawmakers appreciate the Attorney General’s input on this appropriation in acknowledgement of the General Assembly’s authority to distribute settlement funds under the state constitution, and will take his recommendation under advisement,” spokesperson Joseph Kyzer replied in a written statement.

“Perhaps the most interesting part of this story is the interaction between the attorney general and General Assembly,” said Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. “A.G. Stein didn’t try to commandeer the money or pretend that he had any final say over how the money is used. The House speaker’s office goes out of its way to highlight that fact. Even if lawmakers ultimately decide to use the Dish Network money in a different way, this exchange could bode well for Stein’s future interactions with lawmakers on budget issues.”

Senate leader Philip Berger’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Carolina Journal.

The legislature created the Growing Rural Economics with Access to Technology program in 2018 to offer grants to aid broadband access in rural parts of North Carolina, connecting an estimated 22,000 homes so far. The GREAT program will also distribute $30 million in federal pandemic relief funds for broadband expansion.

Johnny Kampis is a freelance writer for Carolina Journal.