RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — The Rural Internet Access Authority made several moves Monday that could prove decisive in bringing high-speed Internet access to the North Carolina mountains.

The RIAA is piecing together a comprehensive land and wireless scenario to beef up Net connectivity just as it did earlier this year for folks down east.

“Connectivity challenged” is the phrase the RIAA and its executive director, Jane Patterson, used to describe areas where high-speed Internet is an expensive or impossible dream. Clay, Graham and Swain counties, which according to RIAA surveys have virtually no high-speed access, will be among the counties to benefit from the blend of private and public sector efforts.

Utilizing some $3 million in grant money to leverage private investment from companies such as Verizon and private Internet Service Providers as well as government and local agencies, the RIAA hopes this new phase will add a total of 15 rural counties to the Information Highway.

Here is a look at what’s happening:

DSL and Verizon: The RIAA convinced Sprint to expand DSL service to numerous counties by underwriting some of the costs. And it is doing the same with Verizon. Boosted by a grant of $240,000, Verizon has agreed to add DSL connectivity for Clay, Cherokee, Graham and Swain counties. Verizon will invest $335,432.

Wireless access and ISPs: Using unlicensed spectrum, GetOnTheAir and the Mountain Information Network will expand wireless Net connectivity to five additional counties. MAIN gets $360,000 from the RIAA to link Madison, Mitchell and Yancey counties. GetOnTheAir receives $240,000 to link Graham and Swain counties. The ISPs commit $200,000 and $100,000 respectively.

The fiber backbone: Advantage West has worked for years to link the mountain areas to fiber, and nearly half of the RIAA grants are going to the group to speed up fiber deployment. One project will link Clay, Jackson and Macon counties to a network deployed by the Education & Research Consortium and the Western North Carolina Knowledge Coalition’s “Appalachian Access” initiative. The project gets $1 million — the largest granted in the new round. Advantage West gets $450,000 to bring Madison, Mitchell and Yancey counties onboard. Advantage West kicks in $$350,000.

Duke Net: The fiber backbone network supported by the big utility company gets $112,000 for expanded connectivity in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. Duke will invest $1,015,600 in return.

Northwest Connection: This project, sponsored by New River Community Partners, will get $600,000 in exchange for a $3 million commitment to expand fiber in Allegheny, Ashe, Caldwell, McDowell, Watauga and Wilkes counties.

The RIAA, operating under the mandate of the General Assembly and using grant funds from MCNC, has the stated mission of getting all North Carolinians high-speed access to the Net at a reasonable cost. No doubt about it, the group is pushing hard with more than $10 million in grants this year leveraging private-sector and other money to take access where private providers dared not go before.

Major deal for Cisco

SBC, one of the big baby bells, and Cisco are announcing a major contract today that runs three years and positions SBC to greatly expand its offerings of Internet Protocol-based and managed services.

A Cisco spokesman says the deal means Cisco networking equipment will be at the “core” of one of the big so-called ILEC infrastructure’s for the first time, working with data and voice.

In an interview with cNet, Cisco Chief Technology Officer Roland Acra added: “The notion of becoming a key supplier of infrastructure gear for an incumbent (telecom) player is really a big deal for Cisco because it’s sort of the temple of carrier-class thinking that when you get validated by the likes of SBC…you really have cracked a very tough nut.”

Cisco and SBC will work together to provide not only IP services but also a variety of managed services for outsourcing, SBC says.

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.