RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Jane Patterson is working against the clock. But it may be a clock without an alarm.

She hopes.

The clock that is ticking on Patterson and the operation she runs — the Rural Internet Access Authority — is the mandate to see that high-speed Internet access is made available across North Carolina. The clock is supposed to strike midnight on Dec. 31.

“We are on of the few agencies that ever faces a sunset,” she says in a telephone interview. Yet Patterson says the group, which operates with state endorsement but without state funds, is well aware that work will remain to be done well after that date.

“We know there will be a continuation of need,” she says, putting special emphasis on “need.”

The RIAA has thus far helped foster high-speed Internet access across 54 percent of the state’s rural areas, she says. “By the end of the year, we expect 75 percent to have access to high speed.”

But Patterson points out that “only 95 percent of the people have phones” in North Carolina. So getting high-speed net access to everyone at home may be impossible. To try to reach more, Patterson says the RIAA is actively working to set up more community access centers where people can go to get online.

“We have increase the availability of high speed access 10 to 11 percent in two years,” she says. “That’s pretty good.”

Reaching what’s left will be the toughest, though. “If we get another 10 percent, we’ll be ecstatic.”

More public access sites

As an example of the RIAA’s efforts to reach those who don’t have phones or PCs or high-speed access, Patterson says the group struck a deal with Kerr Drugs to set up public access sites at four of its stores. Using donated equipment, the RIAA will link the stores to the Net and Kerr Drugs will provide space, security and parking.

In all, the RIAA has plans to create 137 public access points through a series of public-private partnerships.

Utilizing funds donated by MCNC but always looking for additional sources, the RIAA has been contracting with private and government groups to reach what Patterson described as “tough areas.” The RIAA is providing grants to help underwrite deployment costs for a variety of projects, from DSL services provided by telephone companies to satellite and wireless delivery. Its most recent round of grants is helping to expand high-speed networks in the mountains.

But simply because contracts have been signed and money awarded, Patterson says the RIAA’s work is far from over. “Now we have to see that the contracts are carried out,” she says.

Establishing a “Tech Force”

The RIAA also is working with state and local government agencies through “e-government grants” to offer more online outreach, such as web sites and constituent services.

“We are hoping to establish a list of best practices that local governments can use across the country,” Patterson says.

The group has worked to set up community programs for training in Internet use. Given the difficult state of the economy, online access has been very helpful to job hunters, Patterson says. “In one county, we know they have trained 5,000 people over the last eight months. People who have lost jobs can go to the community access centers, login, post resumes and look for jobs as well as get training.”

Another idea that Patterson believes is fostering more Internet access is a volunteer program for high school students.

“We call it ‘Tech Force,'” she says. “They have a chance to earn up to $1,000 in scholarships to college.”

So what happens to the RIAA at year’s end, assuming all the grant money has been awarded, contracts fulfilled, and high-speed networks stretching from Manteo to Murphy?

“I believe some entity will continue to exist,” Patterson says. “It may not necessarily be called the RIAA, but we need to keep doing this.

“There is much more to be done.”

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.