In his opening remarks at a town hall meeting promoting affordable access to high-speed Internet service, the president of the state’s NAACP tied the notion of universal access to civil rights struggles for inclusion in education, public accommodations and housing.

“Y’all do know that what you’re doing here today is pretty radical, because there are parts of this nation that are not concerned about ‘everyone,’” the Rev. William Barber II told participants March 7 in Durham.

Internet for Everyone, a national campaign by the media reform group Free Press, organized the event to gather North Carolinians’ perspectives on policies that will shape the Internet, and Barber provided the social justice context. “Without a log-on, we will be locked out,” he said.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 3.5 million residents in North Carolina do not have high-speed Internet, either because the service isn’t offered in their communities or because they can’t afford it.

Among the approximately 150 participants were a handful of elected officials, including N.C. Sen. Floyd B. McKissick Jr., Chatham County Commissioner Tom Vanderbeck and Durham City Council member Farad Ali.

Using small wireless keypads, the organizers polled participants throughout the afternoon on their demographic information, their current means of Internet access, how much they pay, and their opinions on topics ranging from net neutrality to federal subsidy. Live results provided an immediate snapshot of collective opinion.

The group intends to aggregate the data with other events nationwide to provide Congress and other policymakers with a breakdown of public opinion on matters that are too often discussed without the input of the people affected, said Tim Karr, campaign director for Free Press.

“I promise that your efforts today will be heard, not just by others in the room but by those newcomers in Washington, D.C., who had promised to deliver on change,” Karr told participants.

Durham’s was only the second such meeting. The first was held in Los Angeles in December. Karr said the group chose North Carolina for its history of grassroots and government involvement in Internet access issues and because of its ethnic, economic and geographic diversity.

The group that turned out at a Durham hotel on a warm, sunny Saturday was fairly evenly distributed in terms of income and geography, with one-third living in urban areas, one-third in suburban and one-third in rural. Forty-four percent said they use the Internet “all day.” Cable was the most popular service.

With $7.2 billion of the federal stimulus package designated to expand broadband access, there are many outstanding questions about how the money will be spent and under what terms.

Barber suggested that lawmakers should require any entity seeking to use that money to demonstrate that the service will reach poor and minority communities.

“That ought to be the password to access to federal dollars: everybody,” he said.

Perspectives from participants

Dean Triplett, 14, attends Swain County Middle School and is a member of the American Youth Congress. He persuaded his mother to bring him to Durham for the event.

We have a little access in Swain County, but it’s costly. It’s $31.99 for your basic DSL from Verizon. We decided to go with just EarthLink dial-up, which claims it’s five times faster than regular dial-up, but I don’t see much of a difference. We tried to get my grandmother high-speed Internet, and she can’t get Verizon because she’s 1,000 feet away from where the DSL stops. So we were trying to get [satellite service from] WildBlue, but they cap you on bandwidth.

I’ve made calls to Rep. [Heath] Shuler’s office to try to get him to support HR 5353 [the Internet Freedom Preservation Act]. My group in the American Youth Congress is working on a bill basically to provide more access to broadband Internet, not only for people who don’t have it, but [to improve it] for people who already have it. I want to make it more affordable, about the same price as dial-up. That bill gets sent also to the North Carolina legislators, and they can choose whether to introduce it.

I hope there will be a lot of good ideas to come out of this event and things we can give to the Obama administration. But I don’t think we’re actually going to make a feasible plan around these ideas. It’s like beta-testing something. It needs to be started locally or statewide before it can be moved to a national level of policy.

Rhonda Locklear of Pembroke is a member of the Lumbee tribe.

We have dial-up access in our home. I think this has put my family, and my sons in particular, at a severe disadvantage. My son Isaac depends on the Internet to complete his assignments for school. […] Recently, he came home with a seemingly easy assignment: research census information of the tri-county area. But because of our dial-up connection, this task took Isaac several hours. It is very disheartening to watch. Isaac gets very upset, discouraged and frustrated by the fact that he can’t do what he needs to do. As a mother, it breaks my heart and it makes me feel that I have failed him in some way.

In Robeson County where I live, the economic situation is dire for our community and for the Lumbee tribe. […] Without high-speed Internet, we don’t stand a chance of reviving our economy. And without high-speed Internet, my son’s chances for a better future are at risk.

Wayne Sutton is a social media consultant from Raleigh. He has more than 19,600 followers on Twitter.

I do think it would be good to have more detailed conversation at the lower government level. I would like to leave here and know something I could start in my community to help individuals or others of lower income who don’t have access. I’m very passionate about education, especially about youth. Those with a lack of knowledge have to work harder to educate themselves. Without the Internet, that makes it hard.

I’m an entrepreneur, and my business is online. So for me, it makes sense to want everybody else to be online so I can reach their eyes. Look at where the media industry’s going and the newspapers industry. The more people online, the better.