The North Carolina Rural Internet Access Authority has $13.5 million to spend on high-speed networking projects in rural North Carolina and is looking for opportunities to invest it.

The total represents more than one third of the RIAA’s $30 million budget and is to be used to provide incentives for Internet service providers and telecommunications companies to build new networks in order to get high-speed Web access into rural areas.

All private and public companies that are interested in learning more about the program have until April 15th to submit information regarding their intention to deploy new fiber, wireless or cable networks to rural areas, and can do so through the RIAA Web site (

“Part of the reason we are seeking information from the public is to see what projects out there need assistance,” says Paul Ridgeway, chairman of the incentives committee for the RIAA. “One of the things that we’ve found is that there are a number of initiatives going on — but there are many that you don’t hear about as much, such as wireless projects or government initiatives to help get broadband access to rural communities.”

Ridgeway adds that RIAA is only seeking information at this point and that there will be more time in the future for public and private initiatives to apply for funding.

The RIAA, also known as e-NC, was created in 2000 by the General Assembly as a grassroots initiative with the goal of providing high-speed access to every person in the Tar Heel State. The group is funded by $30 million that was committed by the former MCNC after it sold one of its units to JDS Uniphase last year.

Bridging the divide

The authority, which is headed up by Jane Patterson, former science advisor and high-tech guru for four-term Gov. Jim Hunt, is stepping forward with funds even as another pump-primer — the federal government – seems to be backpedaling.

The Digital Divide received a lot of attention during the Clinton Administration but it has been placed on the back burner by the current administration. For its 2003 budget, the White House has stripped more than $100 million that was available for community technology grants and information technology training programs designed to help bridge the Digital Divide.

Tony Wilhelm, senior director for the Benton Foundation, a non-profit group providing grants to help rural communities and the working poor access the digital age, says that the message President Bush is sending is that the digital divide is no longer the government’s concern.

“After years of building up successful public investments to expand technology opportunity, the administration’s decision to pull out comes at an unfortunate time,” Wilhelm says. “With the nation in an economic slump, technology has been a proven catalyst in increasing productivity and economic growth, especially in rural and underserved communities.”

According to the Benton Foundation only one in four of America’s poorest households were online in 2001 compared with eight out of 10 homes earning more than $75,000 per year. And twice as many urban households have broadband connections compared to rural communities.

The Bush Administration released a report on Feb. 5 called A Nation Online: How American are Expanding Their Use of the Internet. The report, which is now posted on the former government-backed Web site, finds that Internet use is increasing for people regardless of income, education, age, race or gender, and that Internet use by individuals in households earning less than $15,000 per year is increasing by 25 percent annually.

Other programs may be ‘killed’

But industry observers, like Wilhelm, say the findings in the report are fuzzy and that it is important for the government to continue the work it started during the 1990s.

Todd Cohen, editor of Raleigh-based Nonprofit Express, says the nonprofit community is not happy about proposals by the Bush administration to kill another two programs that aim to give poor people access to technology. One would put computers in schools, and the other would create technology centers in low-income rural areas.

“Grants to encourage private development of high-speed networks should help boost economic development in rural areas, but if the people who live there are going to find and keep competitive jobs, they still need access to computers and the training to use them,” Cohen says.

Ridgeway says the RIAA was instructed by the General Assembly to complete its initiatives in three years, meaning it has one year left.

“It’s important to track down these build-out projects and help them become a reality,” Ridgeway says.