Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — A state agency to promote high-speed Internet connectivity in rural areas — intended when it was created in 2000 to last only a few years — would become a permanent bureaucracy under legislation that will be considered by a House committee today.
The e-NC Authority, the successor agency to the Rural Internet Access Authority, is currently scheduled to go out of existence at the end of this year. The RIAA, created in 2000, had a sunset date of Dec. 31, 2003, but lawmakers that year converted it to e-NC and extended its life to Dec. 31, 2006.
The bill, scheduled to be considered this morning by the House Science and Technology Committee, would eliminate an end date for the agency.
In addition the legislation would allow up to $455,000 of state-funded grants for technology projects to cover expenses and operations for e-NC. Jane Smith Patterson, executive director of the authority, has said that operating cost for e-NC is about $1 million per year.
The bill calls for a $7.5 million in grants for the upcoming fiscal year for Internet connectivity incentives. The funds are intended to help reach at least 70 percent of homes in each county with high-speed Internet services by 2008. Grants require at least a 50 percent match from the Internet service providers who receive the funding.
Another $1.6 million would be appropriated for the continuation and expansion of e-NC's Business and Technology Telecenter program. Currently seven Telecenters — which provide local community Internet access and computer training — are running, or are in planning stages, throughout the state.
The proposed legislation would allow e-NC to use up to 5 percent of the $9.1 million in grants for administrative purposes. In last year's budget the legislature infused e-NC with an additional $1 million in operating funds, but failed to extend its sunset date as Patterson and the agency's directors requested.
The Rural Internet Access Authority was launched with $30 million from the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC), a technology research organization created in 1980 by Gov. Jim Hunt that was subsidized with up to a quarter-billion dollars from taxpayers through the late 1990s. The purpose of RIAA was to serve as a temporary state authority to facilitate the extension of high-speed Internet service to the state's rural areas.
"What we don't want is to create a whole new bureaucracy that lasts forever," said then-bill sponsor for the RIAA, former state Sen. Eric Reeves of Raleigh, to the The News & Observer in June 2000.
But in 2003 the RIAA, when it was converted to e-NC, also had its authority expanded to help extend broadband Internet access to "distressed urban areas." Then-state Sen. Virginia Foxx, now a Republican U.S. Congresswoman, said at the time that the RIAA only had "some loose ends" left to complete its original mission.
"What they're creating is a bureaucracy that doesn't need to be created," Foxx told Carolina Journal in June 2003.
Patterson said last year that e-NC "is a state authority, not a permanent state agency," but that the needs to help extend high-speed Internet service to all areas in North Carolina are ongoing. In its January 2005 presentation to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, e-NC reported "there is much more that must be accomplished for information technology infrastructure in North Carolina."
The authority, however, implied that its own existence may need to be made permanent to keep technology up-to-date in rural areas.
"Technology turns over at a minimum every two years," the e-NC report said, "and the rural areas must keep up with these technology turns in order to create and maintain competitive rural economies."
E-NC's most recent 100-County Report said 82 percent of North Carolina's households can access high-speed Internet services.
Patterson could not be reached yesterday to comment for this article.
Paul Chesser (email@example.com) is associate editor of Carolina Journal.