Where was the golden spike? Well, perhaps a golden fiber optic cable spike would have been more appropriate?

A spike of some kind really was the only thing missing Monday as MCNC celebrated the completion of the Manteo-to-Murphy broadband highway project.

In an event put on simultaneously at four locations around North Carolina, the operator of the North Carolina Research and Education Network along with its funders and partners declared the 2,600 fiber mile highway project finished in terms of construction at a cost of $144 million.

On time and on budget – a “remarkable achievement,” said Laura Dodson, director of Broadband Technology Programs from the U.S. Department of Commerce, who was in RTP for the event.

But much work remains to be done now in leveraging the state’s newest asset.

Speaker after speaker, including MCNC’s Chief Executive Officer Joe Freddoso, Gov. Pat McCrory, and Dan Gerlach, CEO of the economic development group Golden LEAF which provided $24 million on the funding,  hailed NCREN and what it means for the state, especially rural areas who likely would never have received fiber-optic based Internet access.

Each speaker, including Congressmen David Price and Renee Ellmers, chipped in with warm words.

Freddoso likened the process of connecting North Carolina to running a marathon. “We’ve only run the first mile,” he explained. With infrastructure in place, it’s up to other leaders in the public and private sectors to extend the network the proverbial “last mile” so students can improve their education through high-speed Internet access at home while private partners lease backbone space to drive business and individual usage.

The politicians laid aside political differences, if only for a brief shining moment, to declare broadband a “non-partisan issue.”

While Freddoso noted that no state funding was used for the project, NCREN did receive a huge boost from Golden LEAF, which was chartered to manage the state’s share of tobacco lawsuit proceeds. (The Republican-led General Assembly has now stepped into the process.) Federal grants, money from private sector partners and MCNC’s own foundation provided the rest of the needed capital. Price pointed out that the federal funds came through the 2009 Obama Administration often-criticized stimulus package. He insisted that  NCREN serves as an example of how the federal government can help boost an economy in times of distress while at the same time investing in the future.

Politics aside, the governor, politicos and other speakers noted that NCREN gives North Carolina infrastructure to help keep and bring more jobs to the state, especially in hard-pressed rural counties left behind in the building of the tech palace known as Research Triangle Park and the finance hub that is Charlotte.

NCREN reaches 82 of 100 North Carolina counties and has a potential audience of more than 6 million people, McCrory noted. While NCREN is not for commercial traffic and already links the state’s school districts, community colleges, universities and much more, “dark” (unused) fiber in the backbone is available for lease. And MCNC has a growing number of partners seeking to cash in on business opportunities.

In his travels around the state, McCrory said people tell him that they “have to connect or die.” He likened broadband to highways, saying without either communities have no future.

Through NCREN, those left-behind communities and counties have a chance to connect.Will they?

Just two weeks ago, Shelby-based RST Communications unveiled its own statewide fiber background, part of which is leased from NCREN. That project is an example of North Carolina’s advancing Internet infrastructure.

Two other projects cited at the event – a county RFP for broadband project ideas in Person County and the fledgling Next Generation Network project targeting the Triangle and Triad – also are seeking to capitalize on opportunities created in part by NCREN.

“The infrastructure should never be a deterrent to the great minds of North Carolina,” Freddoso said. “We have the infrastructure to share with the private sector.

“For those who wouldn’t have had access for years to come – or hope to ever have access – this infrastructure is closer than ever before.”

Now North Carolina’s leaders – regardless of party, public or private, rural or urban, from big companies to little companies – must capitalize on this information highway. It’s open for education – and business.