North Carolina will soon have an infrastructure that will scale to exceed the needs of the digital world for the next decade and beyond.

By next spring, MCNC will have completed a $144 million expansion of the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN) called the Golden LEAF Rural Broadband Initiative (GLRBI).

The first phase of the project was complete in April 2012.

All broadband fiber associated with the first phase of the project is now active and serving Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs) including K-12 schools, universities, community colleges, health care facilities, public health facilities, libraries, research institutions, and other sectors in western and southeastern North Carolina. Also, through first-phase private-sector telecommunications company FRC, which invested $4 million into the project, fiber is now available to serve commercial businesses and last-mile consumer broadband needs in these same regions.

The second phase of the GLRBI currently is more than 90 percent complete.

To fund this historic expansion, MCNC applied for and received two U.S. Department of Commerce Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) awards totaling $104 million. In addition, MCNC raised $40 million in private matching funds as required by BTOP. MCNC’s sources of matching funds included $24 million from the Golden LEAF Foundation, $8 million from the MCNC Endowment, $4 million from FRC, and an estimated $4 million through donations of land and existing conduit from individual community colleges, universities, and others including the Albemarle Pamlico Economic Development Corporation. No direct funding from the State of North Carolina was required.

This expansion of NCREN has created or saved 2,500 engineering, construction, and manufacturing jobs in the state.

In total, this new investment in NCREN results in a 2,600-mile fiber-optic network that touches 82 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, giving North Carolina at a significant competitive advantage compared to other states and countries. NCREN is now a scalable, owned fiber-optic infrastructure that allows North Carolina’s CAIs to keep up with exploding bandwidth demand (40 percent growth per annum) at operating costs fixed at current levels.

“The future of North Carolina through improved access to education, better health care, and robust economic development is enhanced with the completion of the first phase of the Golden LEAF Rural Broadband Initiative,” said Gov. Bev Perdue in April. “We can only imagine today the innovation and economic growth that will occur in the future due to the expansion of this infrastructure that allows the great minds of North Carolina to collaborate with the world.”

Since the project began in 2010, the video services infrastructure on the network has been upgraded; East Carolina University received a 10gig network upgrade and now serves as a hub for most of eastern North Carolina; the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville now has a 10gig connection, and Vidant Medical Center in Pitt County became the first not-for-profit hospital connected to the North Carolina Telehealth Network via NCREN.

Users of NCREN now include all 17 institutions with the University of North Carolina System; all 58 North Carolina Community Colleges; all 115 North Carolina Public K-12 School Districts; 26 of 36 private four-year colleges and universities; 24 non-profit hospitals; 61 public health agencies; 36 charter schools; and many of the state’s premier research organizations such as RTI, National Institute of Statistical Sciences, N.C. Biotechnology Center, NOAA National Climatic Center, Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI), Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI), and more. NCREN also serves as the Internet gateway network for all state employees.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the BTOP awards, has recognized the GLRBI project as exemplary. MCNC also was recognized in 2012 as a White House “Champion of Change” for undertaking a project of this magnitude for the citizens of North Carolina.

“Our goal is to continue creating infrastructure that meets the burgeoning broadband needs of research, education, and health care in North Carolina. We also hope the infrastructure we are building is leveraged to make more broadband options available to consumers and businesses in rural North Carolina,” said MCNC President and CEO Joe Freddoso.

“We are beginning to field lots of interest in using this new fiber,” added Freddoso. “Like what happened when the interstate system was first built, North Carolina clearly possesses an infrastructure that will create and attract innovators and entrepreneurs to our state because of the access to big broadband along the new build.”

Once complete next year, approximately $143 million of the GLRBI project (99.3 percent) will be expended with private-sector companies doing engineering, outside plant equipment, optical gear, and construction, all of which are based in North Carolina or have a significant presence in the state. Right now, new or acquired fiber through the GLRBI is available to economic developers and other service providers to grow broadband availability and create jobs.

Both MCNC’s BTOP awards were part of a coordinated strategy developed in 2010 by the governor’s office, the N.C. Office of Economic Recovery & Investment, and the e-NC Authority to improve broadband access for businesses and residents in underserved areas. Once all work is complete next year, the two rounds of BTOP infrastructure have the potential to serve directly, or through MCNC partnerships with private-sector service providers, more than 1,500 community anchor institutions, 180,000 businesses, and reach more than 300,000 underserved families.

North Carolina is one of just a handful of states with this level of competitive advantage in research, health care and education, and NCREN continues to be a real asset to help grow jobs from Manteo to Murphy and all points between.