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e-NC Authority goes the 'last mile'

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Jane Smith Patterson wants every home and business in North Carolina to have access to broadband Internet service. A veteran of state politics, Patterson is using her connections in Raleigh to make it happen. "Without it," she says, "I don't know how rural North Carolina will survive."

A native of Williams Township in Columbus County near the South Carolina border, Patterson knows how desperately North Carolina's rural communities need help in the new economy. Her long career in state politics has been devoted to technology-based economic development—ever since 1977, when she served her first of several terms as an advisor to Gov. Jim Hunt. Patterson's own high school didn't offer chemistry classes because there was no one to teach them. She was the force behind the North Carolina Information Highway, a broadband network launched in 1994 that connected every university in the state and more than 70 high schools. The network brought video-enabled multimedia to the classrooms, which meant students in her hometown could take courses from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. "We deployed the first and largest public-switched broadband in the world, and all of the telephone companies were involved," she says.

Since 2000, Patterson has been executive director of the state economic development project now called e-NC Authority, which is housed in the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center in Raleigh. Its mission is to bring broadband to North Carolina's most distressed counties, along with the training and education essential to finding and creating new jobs

e-NC is tackling the problem of the "last mile"—that last phase of building out high-speed Internet service to individual customers. It's expensive to lay fiber to connect every single home, and private companies often believe building out isn't worth the expense in sparsely populated areas. e-NC offers matching funds to service providers as an incentive to finish the job.

Patterson's seven-person staff also researches exactly which Internet service options are available in all 100 counties, who the providers are, and what citizens need. e-NC is able to present hard data in the form of surveys, maps and databases to legislators and private companies alike.

The organization's first project was to make sure every county had dial-up service that did not require a long-distance call; it was done in six months. Now she wants to ensure that at least 70 percent of the households and businesses in the state have access to broadband Internet connections. Those counties with less than 70 percent access are mostly near the borders with other states (where cross-border businesses cost twice as much to operate) and Down East. Patterson brags that e-NC has brought North Carolina up in the national rankings for broadband connectivity, from 47th in the nation to 10th.

More recently, e-NC has created seven Business and Technology Telecenters in some of the most distressed counties in the state (Alleghany, Anson, Cherokee, Martin, Northampton, Rockingham and Rutherford). They provide computer literacy courses and job retraining and serve as small business resource centers, offering technology and cheap office space. The telecenters have created more than 900 jobs to date, she says. "We're helping rural counties move away from the old agriculture and manufacturing and look to the future, at how you can take the best of rural North Carolina, add technology to it, and live there comfortably and make money."

While these efforts are targeted at the people who live, work and run small businesses in these counties, e-NC has also helped recruit larger companies to rural counties, Patterson says, through the incentives of a skilled workforce and technological access.

Earlier this month, Raleigh-based hydrogen fuel cell company Microcell announced plans to open a plant employing 100 people in Martin County by 2010. The Martin County Economic Development Commission, which houses the telecenter in Williamston, uses the center "as the foundation or building block for bringing companies and building wealth through job creation in the community," Patterson says. In fact, the commission leveraged the building itself as collateral to purchase a building that will house Microcell rent-free for a year.

When Google was considering whether to build an outpost in Lenoir, Patterson sent GIS maps created by e-NC's researchers that showed there was an infrastructure of broadband fiber and electrical grids in the mountains "that demonstrated they would never have a problem maintaining their server farms." Patterson won't take the credit for recruiting Google ($260 million in incentives must have been persuasive), but she believes that assuring them they would have access to existing broadband surely helped.

Patterson's aggressive, long-view approach to technology has not always won her friends in Raleigh, where some legislators have thought her requests for tax money to pay for Internet connections were a boondoggle. Patterson points out that this year, the General Assembly is considering a $24 million proposal to connect all the state's schools with broadband, finishing the job the North Carolina Information Highway started. Back in '93, she says, "we got offered a deal: For a $1,000 one-time charge for each school, they would have connected every school in the state with lateral fibers off the backbone. Of course, they would have also had to pay a monthly service fee, but that fiber would have gotten to them. And we couldn't get the state legislature to do it then. It just takes a while, I think, to get people to see the necessity of it."

The United States is falling behind in broadband connectivity. Much faster, much cheaper service is available to a higher percentage of the population in Korea, Australia and Canada than in the United States. In Korea, consumers can get a connection speed of 10 megabytes per second to their homes for $19 a month. "That's a huge amount of bandwidth," Patterson says. "That's like a six-lane highway compared to a T1, which is like half a lane."

Patterson believes that in order for the United States to bounce back, the federal government has to invest in technology deployment by offering incentives to get broadband to the people. "The governments in those countries have really been involved in pushing this," Patterson says. "They see it as important as water and sewer and electricity and roads, something it hasn't yet risen to in this country."

This year, e-NC is asking the legislature for $10 million, including $2 million in one-time grants to the telecenters, and $7.5 million for its incentives fund. At the national level, Patterson's leveraging her long list of acquaintances and allies (particularly in the Democratic Party) to get more people to put technology at the top of the economic development agenda.

Why is she so passionate about raw glass fiber and binary packets? "Because technology is a leveler of capabilities. It has the ability to really help everyone enhance their potential."

For more information, visit e-nc.org.

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