Trying to speed Internet delivery to poor, rural areas of North Carolina, state officials have reached an agreement with Compaq Computer Corp. to get free or reduced-price computers based on how much state and local agencies spend with Compaq over the next year.

The North Carolina Purchase Credit Program is described by state and Compaq officials as the first of its kind, and they estimate it could lead to $50,000 to $100,000 in computer equipment for rural areas of the state. Although that translates into fewer than 100 Compaq personal computers, officials say that needs to be put in perspective.

“Look at where (the computers) would be going,” says Susannah Smoot, the spokeswoman for the N.C. Rural Internet Access Authority (RIAA), which is responsible for pooling and redeeming the credits. “They’re going into public access sites, training centers and tele-centers in rural areas where many people have never had the chance to use a computer before. … This can go a long way and will really help with our initiatives.”

Under the program, any purchases of Compaq products made by state and local government agencies, schools, colleges, public hospitals or individuals using the State Employees Purchase Program will generate credits that the RIAA can use toward buying other products. The amount of the credit depends on what is purchased. For example, a server counts more than a PC.

The RIAA is charged with bringing dependable, affordable, high-speed Internet access to all parts of the state. Through its e-NC program, the agency already is establishing tele-centers, technology hubs serving rural communities, in Allegheny, Cherokee, Duplin, Martin and Robeson counties.

Compaq approached state officials with the idea for the credit program because it was intrigued by the RIAA’s efforts, spokesman Bill Carver says. “We really like what they’re doing. We thought it was an innovative, aggressive program that will benefit many citizens of the state,” he explains.

Compaq put a one-year limit on the program because the RIAA is expected to have all of its tele-centers fully operational by then, according to Carver. He adds that the program could be extended if company and state officials agree to do so.

The RIAA doesn’t plan to conduct any promotional effort to boost the credit program, Smoot says, because it doesn’t want to interfere with the state purchasing process. Such an effort also might alienate other corporate supporters of the agency, including IBM.

For more information on the RIAA and its e-NC program, visit www.www.e-nc.org.