Note: The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of Local Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Even for someone who has been involved in and reported about efforts to expand broadband across North Carolina since the early 1990s, Thursday’s announced plans to expand the North Carolina Research and Education Network were breathtaking.

If wins federal support for to its existing NCREN backbone, 69 of the state’s 100 counties will truly gain ramps onto the information interstate.

Coupled with MCNC’s first-round expansion that the federal government agreed to support in January, NCREN could finally make Manteo-to-Murphy broadband accessible.

is making MCNC’s second bid possible with a commitment of $24 million. Plus, MCNC has found partners to swap or trade another 500 miles of fiber. An economic development group is chipping in a $4 million-plus contribution by allowing MCNC to install fiber in conduit it has already laid.

Plus, MCNC has secured agreements with a number of private service providers to buy fiber strands through which consumer and business Internet services can be provider. The for-profit side of the business is not on MCNC’s agenda, Chief Executive Officer Joe Freddoso points out. But companies that couldn’t cost justify broadband in rural areas themselves are ready to add service since their required investments will be reduced.

The Skinny first became involved in broadband efforts back in 1993 when Capitol Broadcasting launched Interpath, an Internet Service Provider. We worked with MCNC, transitioning their private business away from NCREN. But the challenges, let alone costs, of building a state-wide network were mind boggling. Telephone and cable companies over time greatly expanded broadband availability, again in part with help from MCNC which funneled $30 million to the state-backed led by broadband pioneer Jane Patterson.

But a great deal of work remains to be done for more universal access. This new plan is a huge step toward the finish line.

When MCNC won the first federal grant in January, Freddoso was approached by Golden LEAF and other state leaders and asked to expand MCNC’s plans with an additional proposal.

Here’s the scope of what the new plan would cover, if approved:

• 32,597 square miles (67% of N.C.’s total square miles)
• 5.93 million total population (66% of N.C.’s population)
• 2.32 million households (66% of N.C.’s households)
• 160,000 businesses (68% of N.C.’s businesses)
• 4,066 community anchor institutions (68% of N.C..’s community anchor institutions – schools, libraries, etc.)
• Approximately 709,500 households without access to broadband (31% of the state)

According to MCNC’s plan all this can be done for $111 million – $33 million of which is already committed from local sources.

Here’s a well deserved tip of the hat to MCNC, Golden LEAF and their partners in this effort.

Now, if that grant can just be approved …

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