IN the race to link up to the information highway, North Carolina has taken an early lead among the states.
If successful, the state's proposed high-tech network would go beyond the use of normal phone lines - which can take 2-1/2 hours to move a high-resolution image - and tap into a new, faster switching technology to speed up such tasks as:
* Long-distance learning, in which professors could teach students at various sites through video and computer graphic link-ups.
* Computerized mapping, in which police detect crime patterns across different areas or companies pick factory sites available in different regions.
The high-tech thrust in North Carolina, however, is not all it could be yet. The legislature has trimmed back the governor's plans. Nevertheless, the state is in the forefront of building a high-speed network that relies on an advanced switching technology called asynchronous transfer mode, or ATM. ``We're going to have ATM inter-connectivity like no other state in the country,'' says Alan Blatecky, a vice president at MCNC, a nonprofit research consortium in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
North Carolina's effort, however, has raised questions over funding that are also being asked about President Clinton's drive for a national information highway.
On the one hand, Mr. Clinton wants to spare the federal Treasury and let the private sector build the data network. On the other hand, he wants to ensure that the network includes the poor, the rural, and the disadvantaged.
North Carolina is raising similar questions. Who will fund the information highway: the private sector alone or in partnership with state government?
Gov. James Hunt (D) has proposed that a partnership build the North Carolina Information Highway. North Carolina's three largest telephone companies would pay to outfit their networks with ATM and offer the state a cut-rate price for the service. In return, the state would encourage use of the system. Counting capital equipment, state and local governments would share an estimated total bill of $142.5 million over the next five years. The savings in streamlined government would more than offset the cost, the administration claims.
For example, local economic development officials could hold a video-conference with state officials rather than driving four hours to Raleigh. And a university professor could teach advanced high school students by video while lecturing her own college class.
``The state interest should be to open up its infrastructure to all its people,'' says Jane Smith Patterson, the governor's adviser for policy, budget, and technology. ``If the marketplace determines what's out there, your cities will get the advanced information infrastructure and the rural areas won't.''
But the North Carolina General Assembly this spring began to take a closer look at the governor's cost estimates.
``What the administration appeared to be asking was for the legislature essentially to sign a blank check to pay unknown, yet-to-be-determined line charges for yet-to-be-determined users over an indefinite period,'' says Lynn Muchmore, an analyst with the legislature's fiscal staff. So the Senate and House, in separate bills, trimmed back the governor's plans.
``Most of the people around the General Assembly are convinced that they're going to have an information highway whether the state government funds it or not,'' Mr. Muchmore says. ``I think it's more a question of how much state government can be expected to lead this investment.''