RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — To be honest with you, I have always preferred private enterprise initiatives over government-sponsored programs. But the folks at the Rural Internet Access Authority deserve a lot of credit for the impressive amount of work its staff and volunteers have done over the past two years.

Here’s an example:

A recent round of grants to private industry and a public-private partnership in eastern North Carolina will help fund the creation of a mesh of high-speed Internet access for rural areas incorporating DSL, fiber optic, satellite and high-speed wireless. But to ensure the idea works, the RIAA., or e-nc, is stipulating that not all funds will be granted until a “last mile” connectivity solution to the fiber backbone being created as part of a natural gas pipeline project is included.

The companies involved include Sprint (DSL), Cape Lookout Internet), America Connect (satellite) and the Albemarle-Pamlico Economic Development Corporation, which is building the pipeline.

This group is not about pork. It’s about business. It’s about service.

Obviously, the e-NC folks have an overall strategic vision for maximizing grant dollars and fostering private investment of companies such as Sprint. The telecom has agreed to greatly expand and speed up DSL access as part of receiving a grant of $600,000. The other grants add up to several million dollars but require a significant outlay in cash, hardware and service by the other providers.

$75M in grant requests

Once these pieces fall in place, a great many people and businesses Down East will have access they might have had to wait years for — if ever — had not the RIAA come along.

Members of the commission and Jane Patterson, the executive director, gathered Monday to brief the media and interested parties about their progress in expanding the reach of broadband Internet access across North Carolina. They are operating under a mandate from the General Assembly to finish their work by the end of next year. And their spending is scrutinized by MCNC, which committed $30 million to fund the initiative from proceeds of the sale of spin-off Cronos back in the dot com/telecom heyday.

Some hard questions were posed, such as why e-NC was supporting some projects and not others. But as Dr. James Leutze, the chancellor of UNC-Wilmington and head of the RIAA said later, “We have gotten many more requests for funds that are available.”

“We have awarded $8 million in grants,” he added. “We’ve had $75 million in requests.

“People have come to us with all kinds of grant opportunities and proposal. Jane and her staff had done a great job in working through every one of these.”

Patterson served as Gov. Jim Hunt’s science advisor and helped spearhead many of the tech initiatives (MCNC, NC Biotech Center, NC Information Highway) that were a hallmark of his two terms. She pointed out that a mixture of e-NC grants, which help underwrite connectivity and also demand for Internet services in rural areas through work centers and community initiatives, is helping spread bandwidth availability. (Of course, private enterprises such as Sprint and Time Warner Cable, are seeking customers on their own. But these outfits simply aren’t going to deploy service where there is little demand or prospects.)

According to latest figures, Patterson says it’s no surprise that urban counties have the highest percentage of households that can get high-speed access (59 percent). Some 44 percent of rural households can get access. Statewide, the percentage is 55 percent. So the commission still has a great deal of work to do. But she noted that availability is increasing and added, “We’re beginning to see competition in rural areas.” Prices for connectivity have dropped, too, she added — as much as $10 to $15 a month to as low as $39 a month.

Will RIAA live longer?

But Leutze said the RIAA’s work is hardly done.

“We will be very disappointed if the numbers don’t improve significantly,” he added. “We’re working both the supply side and the demand side.”

Leutze pointed out that the commission may seek state funding to keep its efforts alive once the original mandate and the funding provided by MCN runs out.

The RIAA has faced many challenges, from finding ways to foster demand for Internet services to getting competing companies to cooperate or at least provide network coverage information, to building databases to help companies and individuals find out what access is available where and at what price.

“A company in Chicago wanted to move to North Carolina but couldn’t find the information it wanted about connectivity,” Patterson said. “They called the utilities commission, and the utilities commission told them to call us. The company also called the local telephone provider and couldn’t find out if they could get DSL.

“We were able to tell them that cable and DSL were available at a specific address that they wanted to move to. That information is very valuable.”

Added Leutze: “We now have a database that wasn’t available before. That’s very important knowledge — and we’ll have more.”

(Note: go to the e-NC Web site, check the site map and go to the GIS Map link to find coverage information.)


Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.