Nick Didow mobilizes statewide effort to close North Carolina’s Digital Divide

A decade ago, North Carolina leaders identified high-speed Internet access as the No. 1 priority for connecting rural areas of the state to the 21st-century economy.

This fall, North Carolina takes a giant leap toward accomplishing that goal with the launch of a $146-million project to extend high-speed connectivity to 82 of the state’s 100 counties, including 67 rural counties that have had little or no access to broadband service until now.

The historic initiative is due in large part to the vision and tenacity of Nick Didow, UNC Kenan-Flagler professor and Kenan Institute Faculty Fellow. Didow saw the critical need to extend broadband access to rural homes and businesses and mobilized a statewide effort to provide it.

“Programs like this don’t happen without visionary leaders,” said Joe Freddoso, president and CEO of MCNC, the nonprofit technology partner that is leading the broadband initiative. “Nick realized that the state’s rural areas needed this service to participate in today’s economy and brought together partners across the state to make it happen.”

Windows of opportunity open

Didow’s awakening to the plight of disconnected rural communities came two years ago, when the town of Edenton in northeastern North Carolina asked the Kenan Institute to study what it would take to create a wireless network to serve the community.

“We realized very quickly that it was virtually impossible to do,” Didow said. “The existing service providers simply did not have the capacity to create a community wifi network.”

Didow soon discovered that lack of broadband capacity and access plagued rural communities all across North Carolina. As the N.C. Rural Prosperity Task Force had pointed out in its 2000 report, without broadband access, businesses and consumers cannot participate in the global economy. Rural areas cannot compete for new business investment and jobs. Something had to be done.

Didow’s research into the issue led him to MCNC. The nonprofit organization already operated a private technology network, called North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN), which had served N.C.’s higher-education community for 25 years. In the past five years, NCREN had expanded its network to serve nearly all K-20 educational institutions across the state and, more recently, added public health providers.

MCNC’s efforts to meet the rapidly growing technology needs of its network users ran up against the same brick wall as Didow found in Edenton. Existing service providers in rural areas of the state did not have the capacity to share or sell fiber optic cable access so that MCNC could expand its network.

As MCNC considered options to build that critical capacity, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The act made $4.7 billion available to extend broadband infrastructure to rural areas across the country. MCNC jumped on the opportunity for funding. In January 2010, it won a $28.2 million federal award that, along with $11.7 million MCNC raised in private matching funds, would allow it to extend its education network to 37 counties in southeastern and western North Carolina.

At the same time, Didow and MCNC’s broadband leadership team, led by Freddoso, began exploring ways to extend broadband further, to the dozens of counties across North Carolina that remained unserved. Working together, with help from the UNC School of Government and undergraduate business students at UNC Kenan-Flagler, they amassed thousands of hours preparing a comprehensive application for the Golden LEAF Rural Broadband Initiative, which would extend rural broadband access across North Carolina. They also rallied participation and support from local governments, private service providers, technology partners, and funding agencies across the state.

The result: MCNC in August received an additional $75.75 million in federal broadband funding and raised another $29.25 million in private funding ($24 million from the Golden LEAF Foundation and $4.25 from its own endowment) to expand the NCREN network statewide.

The award is a “game changer” for North Carolina, said University of North Carolina President Erskine Bowles, who chaired the Rural Prosperity Task Force.

“The funding of the Golden LEAF Rural Broadband Initiative is the most significant event toward meeting this goal since [the task force report] was crafted over a decade ago,” Bowles said.

N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue said the investment “levels the playing field in attracting high-paying jobs to rural North Carolina.”

Golden LEAF President Dan Gerlach said, “The areas of the state covered by the Golden LEAF Rural Broadband Initiative continue to transition their economies to compete globally. The foundation’s board of directors viewed this investment as an opportunity to provide essential infrastructure, take advantage of federal matching dollars, and invest directly in efforts to grow stronger communities.”

Said Didow: “This will be a significant step toward eliminating the Digital Divide in North Carolina forever.”

Middle Mile building begins; last-mile hurdle remains

MCNC is awarding construction contracts this fall for the 1,300 miles of “Middle Mile” fiber optic cable that will wind through the state’s 67 rural counties, connecting them to the NCREN backbone by spring 2013.

The Middle Mile does not connect directly to consumers but to “community anchor institutions,” such as schools, universities, libraries and other public centers, where large concentrations of people gather and are served.

Local service providers must build the “last mile” of cable to homes and businesses. MCNC has begun reaching out to local communities and telecommunication service providers to encourage them to prepare now to take advantage of the Middle Mile connections as soon as they are available.

“This broadband deployment project is like the interstate highway,” Didow said. “You still need off ramps and on ramps and roads to the individual users. But this project puts in place the critical Middle Mile that will provide reliability and capacity to handle traffic in these communities for decades and decades to come.”

Student teams contribute, learn valuable lessons

Didow and five undergraduate business students from UNC Kenan-Flagler contributed to the application process in three key ways. They made presentations and follow-up calls to scores of community officials and leaders in the rural areas targeted by the project to inform them and win local community support. They conducted extensive research to gather the hundreds of data points required for the federal application, and they edited much of the federal application content.

The students said they learned much about the needs of rural communities and how to mobilize communities and partners to address pressing needs.

“The Golden LEAF Rural Broadband Initiative was an opportunity to truly make a difference in North Carolina,” said Jeff Whiteside, a UNC Kenan-Flagler BSBA 2010 graduate, now associate project manager for The Link Group. “I learned that if you want to make a difference, there are avenues open to be able to achieve it.”

Ellen Regan, a 2010 Journalism and Mass Communication major and Business minor, now marketing associate for Deloitte Services, LP, said: “Professor Didow is an incredible mentor and I’m so thankful that I was able to work with him. He really makes it a priority to serve the local community.”

“As a team, we worked really hard to make this project work and, in the end, we have more than $100 million for the state to show for it. I hope that it will close the education and information gap and enable small businesses across the state to thrive.”

 

 

Entrepreneurship • Economic Development • Global Competitiveness

Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise
Kenan-Flagler Business SchoolThe University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Campus Box 3440, The Kenan Center, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3440 USA
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