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Connecting the nation

While Obama raises hopes for tech innovation, N.C. continues to build a fiber future

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Technology advocates and industry leaders are watching closely to see whether and how Barack Obama will use technology to solve a financial mess of historic proportions.

After all, Obama won the election in large part because of his campaign's unprecedented ability to organize and communicate with voters online. The president-elect has made it clear he intends to change the way government is run and how it communicates with citizens. He addresses the nation via YouTube, doesn't want to give up his BlackBerry, and believes the federal government should have a Chief Technology Officer. His transition Web site, Change.gov, is soliciting personal stories from the public to inform his health policy.

At the top of Obama's technological priorities is an effort to expand access to the Internet. "America should lead the world in broadband penetration and Internet access," says a statement on Change.gov, along with a promise to deploy "a modern communications infrastructure to improve America's competitiveness and employ technology to solve our nation's most pressing problems—including improving clean energy, healthcare costs, and public safety." But despite frequent mentions of broadband in the context of these larger problems, there have been no specifics yet.

Most of the burning questions about the nation's technological future will be answered in Washington; the federal government regulates the industry. But state policy will have an impact, too, especially when it comes to tackling the digital divide, a goal shared by many technology advocates. Hopes are high that these initiatives will help high school students learn online, help laid-off factory workers master new job skills, and help create new businesses in rural America.

North Carolina has been among the more progressive states when it comes to tackling the problem of Internet access, though efforts to address the problem in Raleigh have been hampered by a lack of national strategy in Washington. Just as hopes rise that President Obama will put such a strategy in place, the economic downtown has created a queue of crucial needs: saving banks and the auto industry, ending dependence on foreign oil. Whether the government invests in a fiber-optic infrastructure to connect the nation's homes, schools and businesses depends on whether elected officials view technology as an essential part of the solution to the nation's economic problems.

For evidence of just how much impact state-level technology efforts can have, consider the North Carolina Research and Education Network, a statewide fiber-optic network connecting the UNC and N.C. Community College systems.

Governor-elect Bev Perdue has provided much of the political energy behind that network, according to Joe Freddoso, the president and CEO of MCNC, a nonprofit in Research Triangle Park that runs NCREN.

"The governor-elect has been a real leader in educational technology and deployment," Freddoso says.

MCNC was founded in 1980 with support from state government as the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina, a catalyst for technology-based economic development. It has since evolved into a statewide technology-based education effort. The network it hosts allows cancer researchers at UNC and Eastern Carolina University to communicate and serves the dorm rooms of college students.

While the network has been in place for years, Perdue led a recent effort to expand it beyond universities. By the end of 2008, every public school in North Carolina will be connected to NCREN, Freddoso says. The N.C. School Connectivity Initiative, a two-year, $22 million effort paid for with state money and funds from the Golden Leaf Foundation, is the result of Perdue's "sweat equity" in bringing MCNC's agenda to the legislature. "She and Rep. Joe Tolson from Edgecombe County and Sen. Vernon Malone from Wake County have really led a push in the past four years to say, let's make this a K-20 backbone instead of just a higher ed backbone."

The results will be profound for students and teachers, Freddoso explains, as schools will no longer use the commercial Internet that routes traffic all over the country, slowing access. In the past, schools have had to ration their Internet use—on the day eighth graders took an online computer test, for instance, all other students in the district would be forced offline. Now teachers will be able to depend on fast access to programs such as N.C. Virtual Public Schools and Learn and Earn, which will come directly through NCREN.

On the horizon is the potential to expand the network to homes and businesses across the state. "We've only scratched the surface," Freddoso says. "Now we've got the infrastructure for education in place, how do we build on that infrastructure to make it more accessible to every citizen in North Carolina, and how do we use the infrastructure? I think [Perdue]'s going to provide more thought leadership on that."

With each announcement that the federal government plans to loan more money to failing banks, Geoff Daily gets more frustrated. "Why are we continuing to support the status quo? All these things that are failing, why are we giving more buckets to sinking ships when we could be building new ships?"

Daily is a Washington-based technology journalist who blogs at App-Rising.com. He is one of many broadband advocates who hope the hundreds of billions of dollars in economic stimulus and infrastructure investments the Obama administration will roll out Jan. 20 will include a nationwide fiber network akin to NCREN. He sees it as key to creating jobs, modernizing the economy and fundamentally changing our energy policy.

"There's no guarantee we're going to have an opportunity like this again," Daily says. "Instead of thinking health care, business, government, education, broadband, we need to put broadband first and say, we've got issues, how can we solve them through connectivity?"

Broadband can have a particularly big impact on rural communities suffering from a loss of manufacturing jobs—with fast, reliable Internet, they can become home to high-tech businesses. But low-density areas don't produce a lot of profit for the private Internet service providers that compete in urban and suburban America—thus the need for public investment.

Daily estimates it would cost $150 billion to wire the entire nation with fiber (100 million homes at $1,000 to $2,000 per home) or about $30 billion to wire all of rural America. He's working on his own proposal for a Rural Fiber Fund to fill in the gaps the free market leaves wide open. "If we could get even $10 billion, relative to the overall economic stimulus it's pretty small. If we don't step up and do something big, we may not have a rural America in 10 or 20 years. If we take the initiative to wire them for the 21st century infrastructure, they can not only survive, they can thrive."

U.S. Senator-elect Kay Hagan made broadband part of her platform for improving rural communities. Her campaign sponsored "broadband roundtables" in Union and Chatham counties. Her campaign Web site cited a report titled "Capturing the Promise of Broadband for North Carolina and America" commissioned by e-NC Authority, a state agency dedicated to expanding broadband access across the state.

"The big issue is the money," says e-NC Executive Director Jane Smith Patterson. With the state budget shortfall projected at $3 billion, "there are going to be so many issues with the budget. But if you look at investing to save, broadband is your No. 1 opportunity. Sure, we need to fix the roads and bridges. But this is absolutely critical to the infrastructure, too."

One means to that end would be for the legislature to define high-speed Internet access as a public utility. N.C. Rep. Bill Faison (D-Orange, Caswell) chairs the House Select Committee on High Speed Internet in Rural Areas, which is expected to consider a proposal to do so in January. "Most people think high-speed Internet is a utility already, but it's not," he says. If it were, it would be regulated by the state utilities commission and service could be subject to the same mandates as electricity and phone service—including the requirement that rural areas have access. On a practical level, the new definition would give the Department of Transportation authority to lay down fiber when building or repairing roads and bridges, and to include high-speed Internet lines on utility poles.

"It would open up a lot of doors," Faison says. "Not only would it make it easier to get the lines out, but it would put the state in a very progressive position of saying, yes we recognize that the Internet is a vital link both for education and for our economy."

Some local governments across the country—including the Town of Chapel Hill—are already building fiber into their infrastructure improvements, laying the cable when they build new roads, streetlights and public buildings. But big questions remain about how to regulate those networks, and about what role private industry can play in providing service. All of these uncoordinated local efforts would benefit greatly not just from federal dollars but also from a clear set of policies to address those thorny issues.

Raleigh needs more from Washington than money; it needs a plan.

"North Carolina's been a leader by far compared to other states," Daily says, "but even with the leadership you have, a long history of pushing these issues forward, you still have a big mountain to climb. A state can only do so much without federal help."

"Not having a national broadband strategy has really hurt the U.S.," says Freddoso, adding that the U.S. ranks 19th behind Estonia, out of 30 developed countries in broadband penetration.

Freddoso says federal matching funds would make it much easier for organizations like MCNC and e-NC to continue offering incentive funds to increase broadband. "Part of the federal level thinking should be about how do we partner with forward-thinking states to provide this infrastructure that allows research, education, health care, consumer use to flow over one network and build public-private partnerships that make it friendly to the private sector companies involved in this business.

"That rolls off the tongue like it's an easy thing to do," Freddoso continues. "Not an easy thing to do. You have so many parties involved in it, and so many different areas of focus, that the federal policy needs to have a framework. But I would love to see a couple of test case states, and I believe we're one of four or five leading edge, where we try a strategy to build a common infrastructure that fills the needs of the citizens of the state."

Obama appears likely to answer prayers for a national broadband strategy. But exactly what that strategy will look like, and how much technology fits into the larger economic picture, remains to be seen.

The future of technology

For years, government has been slow to adapt to the democratizing forces of the Internet and reluctant to regulate it. It's time, as they say, for a change. Here are a few other state and federal technology initiatives. To find out more, check out Obama's transition site Change.gov. We also recommend TechPresident.com, a blog created by the advocacy group Personal Democracy Forum.

Transparent government

Governor-elect Bev Perdue spent much of her campaign trying to convince voters that she would not represent a continuation of the policies of outgoing Gov. Mike Easley.

In January, Perdue announced a proposal for N.C. OpenBook, an open government Web site that would require each state agency to report standard information about each state contract worth more than $10,000.

The idea is modeled on USASpending.gov, a searchable database of federal contracts and other spending created through the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act co-sponsored by then-Sen. Obama.

Perdue's proposal came during a season in which Easley's administration came under attack for its refusal to provide public records. While the N.C. OpenBook proposal doesn't address all public records, it would represent a step toward transparent government.

Net neutrality

While definitely not a state-level issue, the effort to keep Internet traffic free of content restrictions has a new ally from the Tar Heel state.

"I support net neutrality because it speaks to the values central to our American democracy—free speech and equal opportunity," U.S. Senator-elect Kay Hagan said in a recent statement. "With an open Internet we can ensure communities throughout the state of North Carolina and the nation receive equal access to the Internet as well as the information contained there, to help ensure our country can compete on a global level."

Free national wireless

In his last act as Federal Communications Commission Chairman, Kevin Martin is pushing for free nationwide wireless access to the Internet. Martin, a North Carolina native appointed by President Bush, will bring the proposal to the FCC's meeting this month. It's expected to face opposition from the wireless industry and some consumer groups who object to Martin's requirement that the free service filter out all pornography.

Nationwide free wireless Internet became a possibility after the FCC voted unanimously in November—in spite of opposition from broadcasters—to approve unlicensed use of "white spaces," frequencies on the radio spectrum that will be freed up when all television signals go digital in February.

It's unclear whether Martin's proposal will fly, but in any case, the concept could easily find support with whomever Obama appoints as Martin's successor.

Correction (12/4/08): North Carolina's lieutenant governor is an independently elected member of the Council of State and does not serve in the governor's administration.

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