If the CIO of SAS can compare Skyping at home to Daniel Boone’s mysterious trek across North Carolina in the 18th century, and the CEO of digital health startup Axial Exchange
experiences at least four outages at her business in any given month, then Fiber clearly represents a game-changing opportunity for the Triangle.
Solutions to these connectivity problems are promised as AT&T prepares to unveil plans
for one-gigabit Internet across the Triangle and Google Fiber mulls a similar effort.
But questions remain around the availability and affordability of their services, and if our cities are really prepared to treat connectivity as seriously as they do access to water and sewers.
Says Axial’s Joanne Rohde, “If we continue the trend of fueling growth of entrepreneurship in the Triangle, we have to offer basic services as baseline and they shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive or you price out the very companies you want to bring to the Triangle.”
Rohde was one of two speakers representing the startup community at this morning’s WRAL TechWire “Fiber Transforms the Triangle” event
at SAS. She and panelists from Internet service providers, corporations, governments and economic development organizations were asked to share thoughts on the opportunity that exists when one-gigabit-per-second speed internet is prevalent in the Triangle.
Her future vision is for Axial to forge relationships with carriers that would reduce the cost of connectivity so that it’s cheaper for the sick or elderly to be treated at home instead of hospitals. And SAS’s Keith Collins (pictured below) envisions a more Trekkie world than today's Boone-like conditions: a fully immersive digital experience working with teams around the world.
The panelists and keynote speakers touched a wide range of topics at the three-hour event, posing important questions and concerns and sharing their exciting visions for a more connected, speedy tech future.
So here's our recap of the big ideas North Carolina must explore before fiber can realize its full potential:
We must activate rural areas. Density makes the Triangle and Charlotte areas the most fertile (and economically feasible) ground for bigger pipes, but what about the places around our state growing our food, providing energy and protecting us. We already rely on rural America for food, energy and military operations, but how much more efficient could those resources be with better connectivity? And how do we incent service providers to build infrastructure there?
...And underserved populations.
Former FCC Chief of Staff and Gig. U
executive director Blair Levin
shared this alarming figure: 100 million Americans are without Internet access today either because of cost, location or lack of digital literacy. To unleash the real power of high-speed Internet and improve education, healthcare and economic disparity, these people need to get online. MCNC is doing its part by incentivizing service providers in the state to provide broadband to educational institutions, libraries, hospitals and businesses, but who will transport people to these places and train them to take advantage of the web? There was no one at the event directly representing this population and the key challenges to reaching it. Perhaps a future forum topic?
Competition is key. That’s what will make prices affordable for all of us. But there are real threats, like the potential for a Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. Comcast has the buying power to negotiate the best cable programming rates, offerings Google and others must provide to make one-gig Internet economically feasible. If a merger happens, and pricing becomes an even greater advantage for some, the fast deployment of Google and other services could slow, Levin says.
Also a potential challenge are laws in 19 states, including North Carolina, that restrict municipalities from offering broadband to residents. Though Levin believes market forces will soon require those laws change. At stake in some cases is the opportunity for small towns like Wilson or Cary (which had panelists at the event) to improve public safety. For example, gigabit Internet could allow for the collection and dissemination of real time data from first responders during emergencies.
Connectivity is a key economic development/recruitment strategy.
Entrepreneurs like Rohde have all had this experience—they travel to San Francisco, New York or Boston and experience the quality of infrastructure that companies in those cities take for granted. Read WRAL TechWire's analysis of Google Fiber in Kansas City
and it's clear fast pipes are a draw for entrepreneurs. (Kansas City also created this playbook
for capitalizing on Fiber, something Levin suggests this region create.)
But Sentinel Data Centers’ Brian Baker brings up another valid point. Large companies entering the state need access to data centers to ensure connectivity and uptime, so tech infrastructure plays a key role too. And recently, South Carolina and Virginia have gotten aggressive with the incentives they offer to his industry. One gigabit Internet gives North Carolina another leg up in the recruitment of business.
In Wilmington, faster Internet speeds could be a way to counter a key challenge for the beach community, brain drain, says Jim Roberts, executive director of the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Many young people graduate from college and think they need to be in a big city to get the right career opportunities. Fast Internet could spur more innovation in the beach town, helping to keep young people around.
Fiber levels the field for small businesses. When Rohde served as head of operations at Red Hat and on the trading floor of a global investment bank, it was 45 seconds or less after an outage that access was restored. But in her small company of just 15 employees, there’s little difference in Internet service than what she receives at home, despite the much higher cost. During an outage, workers complete their tasks from home, something that “drives me crazy,” she says. She also calls it “a real trial” for the engineers at her company to get code into the cloud. Fiber could level the field for these small companies, she says.
Another field leveler, she told the corporate types on the room: "It's really important that you support entrepreneurial companies by
buying our products.”
Fiber helps us prepare students for jobs we can’t imagine today.
Since leaving her post as North Carolina Governor in 2012, Bev Perdue
has dedicated her time to improving education through technology through her national Digital Learning Institute
. Closing out the event, she reminded us of Oxford University’s 2040 job forecast, that robots will have replaced up to half of today’s jobs around the globe. That means preparing students at a very early age to understand and embrace technology. She’s already planning an innovation studio for educators and product developers to work collaboratively on ed tech products before they are packaged and sold, to ensure their most effective.
“There has to be an awakening around this country that the only way that America can compete is to provide its workforce with the best, most sophisticated and educated workers,” she says. Fast Internet means better trained and more innovative young people.
Collaboration must continue.
This might be North Carolina's biggest leg up so far. Our state has proven in the past that its key institutions can forgo their self interest for the good of the people. That's evidenced by the creation of its university systems and Research Triangle Park, the university-wide internet network (North Carolina Research and Education Network or NCREN) that’s received acclaim nationally, and the North Carolina Next Generation Network
consortium that attracted AT&T and Google here in the first place. But the region’s players must continue to be selfless in their pursuit of better broadband for North Carolina to ensure continued fast growth and award-winning quality of life.
Open minds required.
Levin compared his first experience with Fiber in Kansas City to the first time he drove a BMW after growing up in working class Los Angeles with a 10-year-old Rambler. It was an awesome, enlightening experience, one that most people can understand better than the potential for big data or augmented reality or virtual healthcare. He also cited last week's Killer Apps in the Gigabit Age
report by Pew Research Center, which polled venture capitalists about the possibilities that exist with gigabit Internet.
One said he wouldn't share if he knew, because he'd be investing it.