FCC Chairman Ajit Pai visited Graham High School to recognize North Carolina’s recent technological achievement. The Tar Heel State is the first and only state with broadband access in every single classroom.

“As we enter a digital economy we want our students to be able have the tools necessary to compete and, increasingly, that means access to the internet,” Pai said during the visit Tuesday, May 22.

Joining Pai was Lt. Gov. Dan Forest; State Superintendent Mark Johnson; Alamance-Burlington Superintendent William Harrison; Rep. Stephen Ross, R-Alamance; Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, and Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance.

“We have made some giant leaps over the years, but I think this is probably the largest one so far,” Forest said.

The achievement is long in coming. In 2002, the General Assembly created the Business Education Technology Alliance commission to determine how best to integrate technology into public education. Former Gov. Bev Perdue led that commission.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the School Connectivity Initiative was created to connect every school district to broadband access with help from the Friday Institute. The General Assembly allocated $12 million in recurring funds for the initiative, but eventually the pot grew to $32 million.

The goal was to have every classroom connected to broadband by 2022, but Forest wanted to get there sooner.

“I said, ‘What do we have to do to speed this process up?’” Forest said. “Really, the equation amounted to money and manpower.”

North Carolina reached the goal with help from the FCC and public private partnerships with the Friday Institute, MCNC, and other agencies. The FCC contributed $65 million to the endeavor.

“For the last 11 years North Carolina has been the recipient of some $700 million dollars in E-rate funding, and we see today in this high school, in this very room, the power of that funding.” Pai said. “Every dollar has been stretched in the Tar Heel state to make sure that every student here, regardless of who he or she is, regardless of where in the state he or she happens to live, has access to educational opportunities.”

The job isn’t done just because every K-12 classroom has access to broadband. Johnson said he would continue working on a computer science plan to help prepare students for a job in that field.

“There are over 18,000 jobs here in North Carolina right now that are open in the field of computer science,” Johnson said. “The lieutenant governor and I are looking for a way to connect every student to those opportunities, and having high speed internet in the classroom will help with that endeavor.”

Connectivity was one of the easier parts of moving the initiative forward, Forest said. Data management, teacher training, and integrating technology into school curriculums are part of future efforts.

“Now we are finally starting to see the benefits of connectivity,” Forest said. “Because of this endeavor of getting every classroom connected, we are starting to see results in local level as well.”

Forest pointed to the equalizing effects of internet access and argued that students in poorer areas now have the same ability to succeed as students in wealthier, urban districts.

“This makes a difference in students’ lives,” Forest said. “To have a student in a rural part of our state, in Hyde County or Alamance County, or Swain county or somewhere else that doesn’t have connectivity to the best content and curriculum in the world, now they have that.”