First in Broadband Mapping, North Carolina's e-NC Now Wants Faster Speeds

August 22 – In taking an inventory of North Carolina’s broadband assets, and in its push to stimulate high-speed internet investment and adoption, the e-NC Authority is arguably the most advanced effort of its kind in the nation. Long before the current wave of interest in broadband data, North Caro

Broadband Census North Carolina

This is the eighth of a series of articles surveying the state of broadband, and broadband data, within each of the United States. Among the next profiles: Colorado, California and Missouri.

August 22 – In taking an inventory of North Carolina’s broadband assets, and in its push to stimulate high-speed internet investment and adoption, the e-NC Authority is arguably the most advanced effort of its kind in the nation.

Long before the current wave of interest in broadband data, North Carolina state officials were at the forefront of mapping out broadband availability; aggregating demand; educating the public about the benefits of broadband; fostering local “e-champions;” and providing hands-on training and access to low-cost hardware, software and technical support.

Now, the state is attempting to push forward further, by encouraging significantly faster connection speeds than are currently generally available in North Carolina, or throughout the country. In a report commissioned by e-NC and released in June, the agency called for faster broadband, a national strategy and more transparent data from carriers.

The state’s extensive efforts to date include an interactive web site with detailing geographic information systems (GIS) maps, annual reports, a detailing parsing of Federal Communications Commission data – as well as its own data from broadband providers – and concrete funding for digital training, high-tech business incubation and better rural connectivity.

For Jane Smith Patterson, executive director of the e-NC authority, the state’s central role is a matter of pride. “We did the first mapping from the data that we had” way back in 2001, Patterson said in an interview.

In the popular press, e-NC’s accomplishments have been somewhat eclipsed by the extensive media focus on Connect Kentucky, and the model that Connected Nation, Inc., has attempted to export to other states. Connected Nation is a non-profit organization funded by telecommunications carriers and state grants.

“Connect Kentucky first talked with us, and didn’t credit us” for work that e-NC had done, said Patterson. Not only was the North Carolina agency the first to extensively map out broadband, it originated the idea for e-community toolkits, and the concomitant effort to stimulate demand by talking up broadband across the state in more than 137 forums, she said.

Back in 2001, e-NC was called the Rural Internet Access Authority, created as a result of the Rural Prosperity Task Force chartered by the legislature. Among the major recommendations were to create a new public-private entity (which eventually became e-NC), to fund it through private-sector contributions, and to invest in business and technology telecenters, said Patterson.

In 2003, the General Assembly expanded the agency’s focus beyond rural areas and to distressed urban areas. It also called for e-NC “to continue the development and facilitation of a coordinated Internet access policy for the citizens of North Carolina.”

Between 2001 and 2006, e-NC issued more than $2.7 million in grants to build e-communities, including grants of about $5,000 a piece to “e-champions” in each of 85 rural counties. It later supplemented these grants. Also, e-NC awarded more than $1.7 million in digital literacy training grants, of about $20,000-$40,000 apiece to 28 communities across the state, and in 64 rural counties, that had implemented local broadband strategies. It also established 135 public internet access points.

Among the most significant of e-NC’s accomplishments, according to Patterson, is the creation of three – and now a fourth – business and tech telecenters. The first three were funded by the sale of assets from MCNC, a non-profit company created in 1980 as the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina from a state grant. The fourth center was funded directly by the state, said Patterson.

These centers “get revenue and provide technical support to community colleges, regional hospitals, and libraries because there is no one around” that is providing them with the broadband that they need, said Patterson. “What we tried to create were places that would be seen as technological lighthouses that would show, ‘look at what [broadband] can do for a region that is distressed.’”

The fruits of these centers are helping to build the case for faster broadband – generally fiber-optic broadband – in rural areas, said Patterson. They are also encouraging major manufacturers to locate in the state. “Communities that have FTTH [fiber-to-the-home] networks are likely to attract high-technology businesses and compete successfully in the emerging knowledge-based global economy,” according to the June 2008 e-NC report, written by attorneys Jim Baller and Casey Lide at the Baller Herbst Law Group.

North Carolina’s extensive interactive map has also allowed it to understand the impact of broadband – and the need to aggressively push beyond conventional digital subscriber lines (DSL) and cable modem service. According to the June 2008 report, two cooperatives in North Carolina are building FTTH at 80 Megabits per second (Mbps) – in rural areas.

“In contrast, the larger telephone companies, which are headquartered out of state, typically extent DSL only to about 80 percent of the households in the rural areas they serve,” read the report. And DSL and cable modem service generally top off at around 3 Mbps to 5 Mbps, for download speeds. That is about 20 times slower than fiber-optic wires.

Patterson said that she would like to see a state-wide goal of 80 Mbps to the home. “Even if you don’t get it, that is your goal, and you are always pushing for that.”

“What would help tremendously is a national broadband policy,” she said. “It is like saying, ‘we are going to put a person on the moon,’ and we did – and it paid huge dividends in terms of products and technology.” By putting a 80 Mbps marker out there, Patterson said, the policy would say to incumbents: “We want every company out there to be building at this level, and if you are not building at this level, than you are just not being American.”

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