RALEIGH, N.C. – A curious, frustrating confluence of events took place Wednesday as top executives from numerous Triangle high-tech firms and government agencies gathered for “Mobile Future – The World Goes Wireless” event in N.C.’s capital.

Even as the state expands its high-tech industry, it ranks among the worst (41st) in households with Internet access, new Census data says.

First, panelists from event host Mobile Future, Cisco, Lenovo and News Over Wireless laid out in clear terms how the state is a clear leader in development of leading wireless technologies. That’s the good news. Across the street, meanwhile, more good news – the annual International Association of Science Parks World Conference at Raleigh’s new convention center that is helping Research Triangle Park celebrate its 50th anniversary. More than 800 leaders from around the world are in town to discuss the next generation of R&D in the state that has the crown jewel of research parks.

Later came word that Apple indeed would invest $1 billion in the state with a new data center that could generate 3,000 or more related jobs in Western N.C. after the General Assembly passed and Gov. Bev Perdue signed huge tax-break legislation. ($300 million over 30 years.) That’s more good news unless you are an opponent of tax incentives as a job lure.

Then came the sobering news. The reported that North Carolina ranks a whopping 41st in percentage of households with Internet access at 61.2 percent.

Good grief. After all these years of efforts to make North Carolina high tech, from investments in the now 50-year-old Research Triangle Park to one of the nation’s first state-wide networks (MCNC’s Research and Education Network) and despite a multi-year effort by e-NC to expand broadband access statewide, the Tar Heel state ranks 10th in population but is a net bottom dweller.

This news is almost as depressing as North Carolina’s continuing dwelling as a low achiever in education.

N.C. Rep. Ty Harrell, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, perhaps captured the state of N.C. when he told the event about a recent conversation with a colleague.

“There really is something to this Internet thing,” Harrell recalled the legislator telling him.

The audience, which included representatives from SAS, Tekelec, RTI International, AT&T, Hosted Solutions, MCNC, e-NC, among others, laughed. But the utter truth of Harrell’s comment made the remark both funny and sad.

Too many people in this state still don’t get it when the subject is the Internet, the web, technology and workforce transformation.

While lauding North Carolina’s record of luring tech jobs, Harrell acknowledged the state continues to wrestle with a changing world. With unemployment among the highest in the nation due to a continuing high reliance on traditional manufacturing and textile jobs, state leaders must continue to fight “to make communities again vibrant,” he said.

“Nothing matters as much as getting our economy moving again,” Harrell stressed. Wireless technology can do that, he noted, both through offering more people access to the Internet as well as creating demand that it turn can encourage job growth at firms such as Cisco, Lenovo, Tekelec, IBM and others.

Jonathan Spalter, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Mobile Future coalition, called for an “increasing investment” in technology and stronger public-private partnerships as part of a strategy to increase the transition of North Carolina’s economy toward more high tech, life science and biotech.

Other speakers at the event included:

• Art Contreras, a former U.S. Marshall and longtime law enforcement officer in the City of Houston. He discussed how law enforcement is using mobile technology to make us safer and noted that as the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Floyd nears wireless technology hopefully could prevent a recurrence of the communications chaos that made the storm even more costly.

• Sam Matheny, general manager of News Over Wireless, the Raleigh-based operation owned by Capitol Broadcasting that is making mobile TV reality for TV stations across the United States.

• Tom Ribble, director of worldwide ThinkPad Product Marketing at Lenovo, which recently unveiled its line of high-speed wireless capable “netbook” computers. Lenovo’s worldwide headquarters are located in Morrisville.

• And Matt MacPherson, director of marketing for Cisco, the world’s largest networking gear maker that operates a campus in Research Triangle Park with more than 2,0000 employees. Cisco is working with Clearwire to develop the next-generation “4G” network while also working to make high-speed wireless networks in the home a reality.

Ribble showed off one of the new netbooks to the crowd, which passed it around hand-to-hand. Consumers want netbooks for fast access to data and communications whether at a soccer game or commuting.

And MacPherson talked about how Cisco is helping make mobile devices “more intelligent” while building faster networks.

But as the world continues to go wireless, across North Carolina the Census data – even if based on 2007 numbers – shows a lot of spade work still needs to be done to get more Carolinians onboard the net at the most basic levels.