N.C. links Internet, economy
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Nov 21, 2002
Every North Carolina resident will have high-speed access to the Internet
by the end of 2003, according to an ambitious timetable set by a public/private
Led by the Rural Internet Access Authority, the e-NC initiative — started
in 2000 following a state report that linked broadband deployment to the
state's future economic health — is targeting mostly rural counties where
many economically distressed areas lie.
The deadline is reachable, representatives said. Previous national and
state statistics showed that North Carolina homes — mostly in rural regions
— were near the bottom in being connected to the Internet, but new statistics
More than a year ago, local dial-up service became available statewide.
By the end of this year, 75 percent of residents will have some type of
high-speed Internet access. And a new state survey shows that 52 percent
had home Internet access in 2001, up from 36 percent in 1999.
Providing entrepreneurial and educational opportunities are prime reasons
for the initiative, said James Leutze, chairman of the authority. In 2001,
there were 63,000 layoffs in the manufacturing sector, and in January 2002,
unemployment payments totaled about $135 million. But he also said entertainment,
such as communication among family members, provides an added value.
Backed by reports, statistics and surveys, the initiative is pinpointing
areas with the greatest need, plowing two-thirds of its investment into
rural areas. (Of the state's 100 counties, 85 are considered rural — and
are home to half the state's population.)
MCNC, a local nonprofit corporation based in Research Triangle Park,
has contributed $30 million; the Commerce Department's Technology Opportunities
Program has contributed $700,000; the Appalachian Regional Commission has
awarded $200,000; and 80 other organizations have given in-kind and cash
support to the initiative.
The state is approaching the issue systematically, addressing supply,
demand and content, said Leutze, who is chancellor of the University of
North Carolina at Wilmington. But he emphasized that the initiative is fundamentally
grass-roots, building commitment and participation among local leaders and
governments to extol the benefits of the Internet and technology as well
as drive local projects. The initiative has more than 2,800 volunteers statewide,
providing expertise and training as well as hosting hundreds of forums about
Such a model, Leutze said, can be replicated nationwide and internationally.
Besides investing money into education, outreach and research, the initiative
developed several mechanisms to increase Internet use among North Carolinians
* Provided $8 million in incentive grants to private companies to lay
down fiber or provide wireless satellite linkups.
* Opened or expanded more than 130 public access sites in 64 rural counties.
A pilot with Kerr Drug, which operates 24-hour stores, will provide four
sites where people can have round-the-clock access to the Internet.
* Created four "telecenters" in the most economically distressed areas
to provide public access sites and Internet and computer training, and to
help spur entrepreneurship among individuals. The initiative has plans to
open four more.
* Conducted 25 e-workshops around the state for small-business owners.
* Provided 28 grants, totaling about $720,000 for free or low-cost digital
literacy training focusing on the unemployed, disabled, elderly and non-English
* Established a Web site listing Internet service providers, research,
surveys and other data that can be used by local governments and residents.
Jane Smith Patterson, the authority's executive director, said there
are also opportunities to develop infrastructure and technology programs
with neighboring states — Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia
— since many economically distressed North Carolina counties are near such
But the e-NC's representatives — who outlined the program during a
Commerce Department media roundtable Nov. 18 — said it needs federal funds
and encouragement to drive such interstate initiatives.
Undersecretary of Commerce Phillip Bond said the department has noted
that "and tried to make some noise," but the law limits some cross-border
opportunities, such as telemedicine. However the U.S. Agriculture Department's
Rural Utilities Service is providing $100 million in loans to provide broadband
in rural, underserved areas, another Commerce official said.