The Triangle region now has the prospect for multiple competitive offerings of the best bandwidth in the world, Blair Levin, former chief of staff at the Federal Communications Commission, told guests Monday at the “Fiber Transforms the Triangle” conference sponsored by WRALTechWire.

Levin, a recognized international authority on broadband networks, gave the keynote speech at WRALTechWire’s Executive Exchange at SAS.

“North Carolina is demonstrating that in securing next-generation networks, there are many paths up the summit. Wilson has created a successful municipal model. The NC Next Generation Network (NGN) project was the nation’s first regional, RFP-driven process. And its success appears to be attracting other fiber networks,” he added.

Levin noted, however that, “Fiber, by itself, transforms nothing. While abundant bandwidth is a necessary foundation for those communities that wish to lead in the broadband era, it is not sufficient. The critical question is what do you do with the abundant bandwidth?”

Once the U.S. has sufficient bandwidth, we can look forward to the “killer apps” of the Gigabit Age, Levin said.

By 2025, better connectivity will allow the “meta-killer app” of human collaboration via telepresence and augmented reality, which will have profound effects on education, job training, and health care, Levin said.

Broadband access has become an economic development necessity as well.

Levin cited a Pew Research Center report which says that augmented reality will lead to changes such as continuous health monitoring and moving online education closer to the interaction of today’s classrooms, where abundant bandwidth can lead to progress.

“These opportunities do not replace the role of teachers or others in similar roles,” said Levin. “Instead, such networks enhance the ability of humans to do what only they can do: inspire, motivate, and provide an emotional connection to the work at hand.”

Considering the resources of the Research Triangle region, education and health care should be “your sweet spot,” he added.

The most obvious benefit of fast, high-bandwidth networks is simply improved performance, he pointed out.

Levin said he thinks the coming “Internet of Things” can transform a number of other services.

While some technology advances may take a decade before they’re used in new ways, the benefits of increased bandwidth seem to be more immediate.

The economic data suggests that markets are already recognizing fiber’s added value. Studies indicate that homes connected to fiber enjoy a market value $5,000 greater than equivalent homes limited to just cable and copper. A recent Fiber to the Home Council study showed a $1.4 billion gain in GDP by 14 communities with widely available fiber.

He pointed to an article in The New York Times that reported “entrepreneurs are flocking to that small subset of cities blessed today with tomorrow’s bandwidth.”

“I think it is likely that this area will be able to lead in taking advantage of the fiber opportunity. You have many advantages in terms of institutions, people and time,” said Levin, citing his personal ties to the Triangle and understanding of the history here.

He then suggested several agenda items for government and business leaders who will use the fiber networks to transform this area.

First, he said, “Create the civic infrastructure that has as its mission taking advantage of abundant bandwidth. This area has a long history of creating such infrastructure,” he said. Those include the the Triangle J Council of governments, which enabled the NC Next Generation Network project to move quickly; MCNC, which has lead to North Carolina’s leadership in bringing big bandwidth to colleges, K-12 schools and libraries throughout the state and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which has helped make the state a leader in attracting and building life science enterprises.

Second, Levin said, “consider devoting human and financial resources to encourage applications development and help innovative individuals and ventures succeed. This is more an extension of existing efforts than a de novo initiative. You have a number of efforts, including the North Carolina Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, the incubator at the American Underground in Durham and others that can be expanded to take advantage of what we don’t yet know.”

Finally, he said, make sure that the benefits of these networks flow throughout the community.

“Here again, I think North Carolina is already leading the way,” Levin said.

“As the Winston-Salem paper reported last week, in the deal the NC NGN and the communities struck with AT&T, AT&T agreed to help address digital divide issues with free service to a number of community centers and low-income apartment complexes, and free linkups to a number of small- and medium-sized businesses.”

“The work is not done, but you’re well on your way,” Levin concluded.

Answering questions, Levin noted about 19 states, including North Carolina, have passed laws limiting the ability of municipalities to create their own fast broadband networks. He predicts that the FCC will overturn the NC and Tennessee laws and sees them has counter-productive. In the end, he said, “I believe market changes will cause the states to rethink their policies.”

One hindrance to Google Fiber deployment, he said, answering another question, is that they can’t do it without also offering multi-channel video programing, which is expensive. Levin said the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger provides the FCC with an opportunity to “even the playing field.”

Levin admitted that trying to get fiber to every home would be incredibly expensive, so the problem of a digital divide between cities and rural areas is a problem. “I think we can get there,” he said, but it may require overcoming “political problems” associated with providing subsidies to make it happen.