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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ground broken at UNCP for $104 million N.C. broadband project

University, state and federal officials gathered at UNC Pembroke on August 12 to break ground on a construction project that will bring faster broadband service to underserved areas of rural North Carolina.

Ground broken – from left: Fayetteville Technical Community President Larry Keen, Dr. Ken Kitts, UNCP’s provost; Rep. Mike McIntyre, Dr. Cammie Hunt, assistant vice chancellor for outreach and Dr. Bob Orr, chief information officer

Ground broken – from left: Fayetteville Technical Community President Larry Keen, Dr. Ken Kitts, UNCP’s provost; Rep. Mike McIntyre, Dr. Cammie Hunt, assistant vice chancellor for outreach and Dr. Bob Orr, chief information officer

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The $104 million construction project will increase broadband Internet and data speed and capacity in southeastern North Carolina and serve rural and underserved communities. UNCP will house an optical transport hub to boost signals along the network.

The project, funded by $76 million in federal stimulus money and a $24 million grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation, will construct a 1,200-mile fiber optic cable “backbone” in two phases through 69 North Carolina counties. In the southeast region, cables will be run between Wilmington, Fayetteville and Lumberton, and westward through Scotland and Richmond counties and eastward to Wilmington.

When completed, the project will connect schools, colleges, hospitals, libraries and other institutions and businesses. In the short term, it will create 2,500 construction jobs, and in the long term, it will create jobs and improved quality of life in rural communities, officials said. Future partnerships with utilities providers and other businesses will carry broadband to rural homes.

U.S. Congressman Mike McIntyre addresses the groundbreaking

U.S. Congressman Mike McIntyre addresses the groundbreaking

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The groundbreaking took place simultaneously at four North Carolina sites: UNCP, Elizabeth City State University, N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis and Asheville-Buncombe Community College. UNCP Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Dr. Kenneth Kitts hosted the event in an interactive video classroom in the Business Administration Building.

“The Golden Leaf Broadband Initiative will allow UNCP to extend its economic development programs into the region,” Dr. Kitts said. “This project will make UNCP a hub of broadband connectivity.”

U.S. Congressman Mike McIntyre, who helped guide previous funding for rural broadband projects through Congress, said North Carolina is a big winner in broadband development.

“We are bridging the digital divide,” Rep. McIntyre said. “Broadband helps everyone. It’s infrastructure that connects us like railroads; broadband is our railroad to the future, and the bottom line is business development and job creation.”

The initiative is a project of the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC), a private, non-profit organization that operates NCREN or the North Carolina Research and Education Network. Officials from MCNC and Golden Leaf Foundation said that one dollar invested in broadband returns $10 in jobs.

Fiber Optic Cable“This takes away the disadvantage of distance,” said Dan Gerlach, president of the Golden Leaf Foundation, which uses its tobacco settlement fund to assist communities that were once tobacco-dependent. “Broadband is the same as all other infrastructure, it’s all about jobs.”

The new project will improve service for 17 UNC schools, 115 school systems, 58 community colleges, 27 private colleges and other libraries, health care providers and businesses, said Joe Freddoso, president of MCNC.

“Bandwidth use is growing by 30 to 40 percent a year, and a shortage looms,” Freddoso said. “We are building the highway of the future.”

Besides Rep. McIntyre, there were three congressmen and U.S. Senator Kay Hagan at the four sites. Sen. Hagan said “a lot of children across North Carolina will benefit all their lives because of this project.

“Broadband is as important to a community’s success as road, water and sewer and other infrastructure,” she continued. “Far too many North Carolinians, especially in rural areas, lack the tools to access the Internet.

“This is a defining moment in our state’s future,” Sen. Hagan said. “These fibers are an economic lifeline. We are expanding the breadth of opportunity across the state.”

Larry Strickling, assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Commerce, said, “Broadband is the key to bringing 21st century jobs to North Carolina, putting people to work and getting our economy back on track. 

“This is a textbook example of government spending done right: It’s jobs today, and it will pay dividends for decades,” Strickling said. “This will keep North Carolina on the leading edge of technology jobs.”

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