(Editor’s note: Now in its fourth year, the 12 Days of Broadband runs Dec. 4 through Dec. 19 highlighting a dozen innovations and stories directly impacted by the expanding reach of high-speed connectivity this year in North Carolina and throughout the country. Writer Allan Maurer provided reporting from this October event.)

RALEIGH, N.C. – The Triangle region is primed for competitive bandwidth offerings from some of the best providers in the world, Blair Levin, former chief of staff at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), told guests at the “Fiber Transforms the Triangle” conference in October.

Levin led fast-Internet strategy at the FCC, headed up the Gig. U university gigabit Internet consortium and is the latest fellow to join the prestigious Brookings Institute. He delivered the keynote address at the exclusive fiber event during the fall, which was put on by WRAL TechWire as part of its Executive Exchange series. SAS hosted the event with AT&T, MCNC and Sentinel Data Centers as sponsors.

“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 said.

However, he added, “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 United States has sufficient bandwidth, we can look forward to the “killer apps” of the Gigabit Age, Levin went on to explain to packed room. By 2025, he continued, 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.

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,” Levin said. “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 in RTP, 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 area’s history.

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

Levin said North Carolina needs to create the civic infrastructure that has as its mission-taking advantage of abundant bandwidth, and this area has a long history of creating such infrastructure. Those include the the Triangle J Council of governments, he continued, which enabled the NC Next Generation Network project to move quickly; MCNC, which has led 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.

Secondly, Levin said to 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, he pointed out noting 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 added.

“As the Winston-Salem paper reported last week in the deal the NC NGN and the communities struck with AT&T,” he noted, “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,” he concluded, “but you’re well on your way.”

Answering questions, Levin said 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 North Carolina 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.

So, what are some of the key drivers of big broadband use, and what should we expect to see in five years?

Levin said the truthful answer is no one knows. The answer will be determined by innovations that have not yet been developed. What we can know is that the old world of analog voice – in which the policy idea was everyone gets the same thing (dial-tone) everywhere at the same price – is not going to work in the era of bandwidth.
Think about it this way, he said. Twenty-five years ago, the farmer and doctor in rural Iowa needed the same thing – a dial tone. Today, their needs are different. The farmer needs great mobility service to be able to connect to critical data while outside and moving while the doctor needs great fixed connectivity to review MRIs with experts in distant cities.

The key is for communities to understand that to succeed they will have to take steps to remove bandwidth as a constraint on innovation, productivity and leadership; he ended but added that the analysis of what kind of bandwidth and how to deliver it will vary from community to community.