Editor’s note: Jane Smith Patterson is executive director of the e-NC Authority, which is tasked with improving broadband Internet access across the state. Patterson, a science and technology advisor to former Gov. Jim Hunt, has long been an advocate for expansion of networking and technology in N.C. schools, communities and businesses. E-NC will host its annual Southeast ICT Symposium on April 16-17 in the Triangle.

RALEIGH, N.C.  — I have often heard people reject the idea that universal broadband is an indisputable component for basic economic survival. I suppose they still see it as an entertainment medium. One local critic in particular continues to tout the idea that the free market alone will drive telecommunications providers to deploy broadband into our most remote and isolated communities – the communities that need it the most. What a fantastic misconception.

A 30-minute drive out of any urban area in the state illustrates stark rural conditions – communities that are filled with vibrant and intelligent students, citizens and business owners, most of whom are fighting to catch their economic breath. These rural communities often struggle to retain existing business and attract new industry. And their leaders lose sleep trying to conceive of ways to keep students interested enough to stick around and build a life for the future of the community.

Our economy – in North Carolina, in the United States and around the world – is in transition. This is undeniable. But this transition has also revealed a golden opportunity because people no longer have to move into urban areas to gain education, build a business and make a living. With broadband connectivity, this is accessible anywhere. No matter where you live or work, broadband connectivity enables you to train for a new job, earn an advanced degree, compete on the world stage – and send photos of all these adventures back to Grandma. Brilliant.

However, let’s emphasize that final point – that these enhanced opportunities are possible only where broadband connectivity is available. North Carolina has 100 counties, 85 of which are considered rural. And of the entire state, 31 counties have less than 75 percent access to high-speed Internet access.

Understand This: Broadband Is Essential

Put down your BlackBerry and understand this. Would you thrive in a community with less than 75 percent access to electricity? Would you relocate your family and business to a county where less than 75 percent of the roads were paved? Of course you wouldn’t. Broadband connectivity has quickly become as important and vital as any other form of basic service to our citizens and businesses.

It is worth acknowledging that we have come a long way in the transformation of telecommunications infrastructure – both by changing the way that people look at comprehensive development and by implementing real progress in build-out of resources like fiber, DSL, cable modem and wireless. Even with the efforts of existing private/public partnerships, there is still much to be done.

Private industry is not deploying broadband into underserved communities for reasons that most economists can understand. Telecommunications service providers must have a business case to expand into a community, especially as a mechanism to recover the high cost of digging in the ground, erecting towers, stringing wires across poles and then deploying last-mile service to get the actual infrastructure to potential customers.

As local policy leaders begin to understand that public-private partnerships are a surefire way to encourage telecommunications deployment, we are also seeing individual communities take independent steps to get broadband to their citizens. A great example is in the City of Wilson, where the municipality itself is deploying fiber directly to the front steps of its homes and businesses. Wilson recognized at some recent point along the way that the community was slipping into a digital crevasse, so it instituted its own public-private partnership to get the job done. Other communities are now following suit.

Conference to Address Broadband Opportunities

All of this is to say that real and self-determining innovation is happening right before our eyes. I invite you to join the e-NC Authority not only in understanding that investments in broadband infrastructure must be made to keep our state and its citizens competitive, but I also hope that you will join us to hear the many stories of this action during a day-and-a-half symposium April 16 and 17 in Durham – “Southeast ICT 2008 – Expanding Broadband: Staying Competitive in the 21st Century Economy.”

Breakout sessions will examine real strategies and challenges encountered in broadband deployment. Keynote addresses include the following speakers:

  • Graham Richard, former mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., will discuss how Fort Wayne is now positioned as one of the most wired and inspired cities in the country, specifically because of the role of broadband in Fort Wayne’s economic development strategy. Richard will also share a case study of how Fort Wayne uses technology to fight crime – an initiative that has resulted in the lowest crime rate in the city in over 20 years.
  • Jim Baller, president of the Baller Herbst Law Group in Washington, D.C. and national authority on telecommunications policy, will present the findings of a white paper that call for a uniquely American national broadband strategy. Most of the world’s leading nations have developed national broadband strategies to prepare their citizens and communities for success in the emerging information-based global economy. Unfortunately, the U.S. has not developed a national broadband strategy, and as a result has descended from being the world’s undisputed leader in broadband in 2000 to being a laggard on most key indicators. Baller’s keynote will review where the United States and North Carolina are in current terms of deployment, and will discuss what they can and should do moving forward.

And although technology has had an enormous impact on research, education and business over the last decade, Alan Blatecky of the Renaissance Computing Institute will discuss how the next 10 years will demonstrate a complete transformation in the marketplace as a result of a continued and relentless drive of technology.

The rapid growth and importance of data – coupled with faster and cheaper computers and storage devices – will provide application developers and end users totally new capabilities. Blatecky will discuss how this, in turn, will increase bandwidth requirements by several orders of magnitude, both within the backbone and to the end user.

The state Legislature created the e-NC Authority with Session Law 2003-425, and our mission is to work with all 100 counties to bring the benefits of broadband technologies to their communities. These efforts provide a continuing foundation for the transformation of all North Carolina communities into the 21st-century economy.

Increasing statewide access to broadband Internet ultimately enhances quality of life and long-term sustainability by allowing citizens and businesses to access health care information, education and job-training opportunities, and support for small businesses and entrepreneurs.