N.C. companies join to bring Internet to all

A new agreement between North Carolina officials and the state's three major

communications companies aims to bring high-speed Internet access to the

entire state by 2002.

BellSouth Corp., Sprint and GTE Corp. have agreed to work with Internet

service providers, telephone cooperatives, the state government and others

in the industry in order to reach the goal.

Driving the agreement is the idea that Internet access is crucial to

decreasing the economic disparity between rural and urban areas.

"Affordable, high-speed Internet access is a key competitive factor

for economic development and quality of life in the new economy of the global

marketplace," the agreement's preamble reads. "In the Digital Age, universal

connectivity at affordable prices is a necessity for business transactions,

education and training, health care, government services and the democratic

process."

Melinda Pierson, the Commerce Department's public information officer, said

that although the agreement was struck several weeks ago, the details of

how the goal will be reached have not been finalized. A nonprofit board

will be established to work out how to reach the goal. That board will include

representatives from the three companies and state and local government

officials.

Pierson said that in most areas the companies will pay to build the

high-speed network, but in areas in which the companies would lose money,

the state would provide tax incentives or low-interest loans.

The agreement also spelled out six other goals that the board will implement:

* Provide dial-up access from every phone exchange within one year.

* Establish two pilot telework centers in the poorest areas of the state.

The centers, to be established within the next 18 months, will provide computers

and Internet access to residents.

* Provide more residents with computers, Internet devices and subscriptions

throughout the state.

* Provide information regularly to citizens about the availability and

future of telecom and Internet services.

* Promote development of electronic government applications.

* Employ "open technology approaches" to encourage potential Internet

providers to provide access without bias.

The agreement began with a recommendation in the Rural Prosperity Task

Force report, presented to Gov. Jim Hunt earlier this year.

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