RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — If Jane Patterson had time, she might want to take up quilting. She would be very good at it.

The executive director of e-NC and a host of officials gathered in Greenville on Tuesday to celebrate a variety of projects that have produced a vast improvement in high-speed bandwidth capability for “Down East”. With backing from Sprint, MCNC, East Carolina University and many others, a fiber backbone and upgraded network has been stitched together that has the Internet superhighway running from Elizabeth City in the Northeast to Wilmington in the Southeast.

I use the quilt analogy because Patterson and e-NC (formerly known as the Rural Internet Access Authority) has been working since 2001 to piece together various efforts to make broadband available and affordable statewide.

“We have gone from less than 30 percent to more than 81 percent of our residents having access to broadband,” Patterson told Local Tech Wire. “We’ve gone from 47th in the country to 10th in broadband, according to the FCC.”

The Eastern NC Project announced Tuesday resembles in many ways the efforts of various groups to spread broadband across the mountains.

“This is like building the railroad in Eastern North Carolina,” said Patterson. “This is the interstate in the air, if you will. This is a major milestone.”

Stitching together partners

Sprint, the Albemarle-Pamlico Economic Development Corp. (APEC), e-NC, MCNC, the Golden Leaf Foundation and the University Health Systems of Eastern North Carolina pitched in $14.6 million for the project.

By expanding high-speed fiber access, the hospitals will be able to exchange data, the Golden leaf Foundation will help fund education projects, and Sprint will invest $6.37 million in equipment upgrades. Sprint plans to add gear in its central offices to greatly expand the availability of DSL access. e-NC kicked in $2.93 million, and MCNC is helping upgrade the North Carolina Research and Education Network backbone it operates with $1.1 million. MCNC sees the effort as a way of expanding its grid computing initiative, an effort designed to encourage economic growth across the state.

The funds will help “buy down” access for users, Patterson said. In some cases, users will pay lower fees the first five years since up-front cash helps recover capital expenditures. e-NC has used money granted it by MCNC to help buy down or to incent telephone companies to install broadband equipment where market demand did not yet justify the investment. MCNC also is buying services from Sprint to help push the network expansion.

Sprint negotiated to acquire fiber laid by APEC in a process that took more than a year to complete, the company said. Sprint also picked up fiber from a company in Kenansville that went bankrupt.

The end result includes redundant fiber running from places such as Swan Quarter to Bath, Southern Shores to Washington.

“This is important for the people east of I-95 because that’s an area of the state that needs this kind of support,” Patterson said. “When you are on the beach, you see growth and affluence. But inland, the infrastructure is less than acceptable.

“This project will have major economic development impact. There were an enormous number of contracts to be negotiated, and a huge effort to bring all the parties into this. It worked.”

A gold medal to MCNC

Patterson, who has been a missionary for broadband since the 1990s as part of the Jim Hunt administrations, said many people have collaborated to lift North Carolina to the upper tier of broadband states. She talked about community groups organizing non-profits for such projects as wireless broadband, satellite services, and action groups to train people on how to use the Net.

Legislation authorized creation of the Rural Internet Access Authority in 2000, and work kicked off in 2001. The jump-start factor was $30 million that MCNC had reaped from the sale of stock in a spinout firm and granted the group.

“MCNC out to get a gold medal for all they have done,” Patterson said.

Looking ahead, Patterson stressed that the Down East project is not the end for e-NC or broadband efforts.

“We still have a lot of pockets to go,” she said. “This is a never-ending thing.”

Patterson already has her sights set on improving broadband access in Southeastern North Carolina — where she grew up.

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.