North Carolina's gambit to bring Internet Age to rural areas

Like other states, it's wiring isolated towns with high-speed lines to boost local economies.

Wielding tools that perform faster than speeding bullets, an unlikely group of superfriends here is meting out a version of digital righteousness.

Surrounded by geeky gadgets and algorithms on the digital chalkboard, Allen Lee and his crew of fellow high schoolers are helping to carry out North Carolina's $2 million gambit to bring broadband to the state's ailing rural reaches.

From their lair at the new Telecenter in Williamston, the Tech Force is hard at work bring high-speed Internet connection to senior centers, doctor's offices, and minority schools. Their cerebral efforts, some say, may help lift their town from deep economic woes.

"They're our superheroes," grins Karen Coltrain, the director of the Martin County Telecenter.

With some 192 jobs created - 77 here in Martin County - four new taxpayer-funded Telecenters scattered around the state is one example of states nationwide attempting to foster business in isolated rural areas. Broadband, many experts say, has become imperative for country communities struggling to connect with the world beyond the county line. Today, only about 19 percent of rural computer users have broadband - compared with 36 percent of urbanites.

"If the bridges in town can't support trucks, you're scratched off the list," says Kenneth Johnson, a rural demographer at Loyola University in Chicago. "Likewise, if you don't have high-speed Internet, you're automatically not considered [by business]."

More and more state governments with isolated rural regions are recognizing the importance. In just the past year, Indiana established the I-Light program, a university broadband consortium that's bringing access to its farm country. And states such as Alabama, Alaska, and Iowa are giving tax credits to broadband firms.

The United States Department of Agriculture is also playing a more active role. With $2.3 billion available in funds the USDA has so far loaned out about $200 million to mostly small and rural telephone companies to hard-wire their areas for broadband access.For example,Lenore, Kan., pop. 2,000, just received a $5.4 million low-interest loan and tiny Ainsworth, Neb., received $2.5 million.

The stakes are particularly high in rural areas like eastern North Carolina, hit by layoffs in textile as well as the encroachment of the Asian shrimp business and an overall halving of tobacco quotas. The loss of a Perdue chicken processing plant meant 350 residents were out of work - and once-thriving peanut processors today stand idle.

Still, Williamston's efforts to get wired for the new economy faces high hurdles when connecting those who still think of a "byte" as something you eat down at R&C's Fine Foods luncheonette.

"We'll never be New York, that's for sure," says Allen, a bit bleary-eyed from all the computer monitoring. "But if we don't have this technology, we're just going to be spinning our wheels."

The main challenge for rural counties is to leverage the business case for telecommunications firms so they can reap profits while still providing affordable service.

Some critics say that, though broadband is spreading at a speed beyond expectations, the government isn't doing enough to stimulate the private sector with taxpayer grants. There's more wiring already in the ground than there are willing customers to splice into it, industry analysts say. And USDA officials acknowledge that the federal loan program has been criticized for being too slow.

There are problems endemic to farm country, too. In Kansas, it turns out that to escape the combines, field mice often take shelter in wire casings, where they nibble on tender sheathing. But despite the setbacks experts predict that a growing number of farming regions will join the online world community.

Indeed, several states, including Arkansas, are now sending representatives to this historic Tarheel town to figure out what the Tech Force is doing. Though only half-finished, the Telecenter features state-of-the-art "tele-suites" and a top-of-the-line teleconferencing room.

In one nondescript suite, One Stream assistant manager B.J. Potts, who didn't even have a driver's license during the Internet Boom in the 1990s, is using broadband to connect country musicians with record producers in New York and Los Angeles. The high-speed access is also a draw for several software companies who are leasing office space in the facility.

Yet so far, the Tech Force teens remain at the heart of the project. Their efforts are having an effect. They once laid 40,000 feet of wire in two weekends and hooked up a local congressman's office to Washington. After they wired a doctor's office, the physician cut insurance reimbursement time from three weeks to one day.

While many of the sleek facility's suites are empty, most experts believe the Williamston gambit will eventually pay off - even as the state is considering spending an additional $2 million to open four new Telecenters next year. The state hopes that besides drawing telecommuters seeking a slower lifestyle, the centers will keep young people like Allen Lee in the state.

"It will give students like Allen a reason to come back home after college," says Stan Crowe, the Martin County economic development director.

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