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Fiber Optic Networks: Powering the Next Wave of Education

Joe Freddeso and MCNC empower North Carolina educational institutions by placing advanced networks and technologies within their grasps.

MCNC is a 30+ year old non-profit corporation. It was created to seed technology based economic development in North Carolina and to provide advanced network services to the 17 institutions of the University of North Carolina System. At the time of MCNC’s creation in 1980, the network services offered were a combination of microwave video and proprietary data connectivity over copper.

MCNC’s provision of network services has evolved and over the last 3 decades. With the onset of Internet Protocol and high speed fiber & high capacity fiber optic networks, MCNC’s helped build the North Carolina Research and Education (NCREN) network to serve the broadband connectivity needs of public education, public health and healthcare and other community anchor institutions in North Carolina. NCREN is a high speed, low latency optical backbone that today serves the bandwidth needs of:

  1. All 17 institutions of the University of North Carolina System
  2. All 58 North Carolina Community Colleges
  3. All 2410 K12 schools in the state
  4. 26 K12 charter schools
  5. 27 of 36 independent colleges and universities
  6. 20 non profit, mainly rural hospitals
  7. 55 County health agencies and county run free clinics
  8. Research Institutions, a few libraries, a growing number of public safety organizations across local, county and state government

The bandwidth needs of these institutions are varied. NCREN supports all users, from dedicated point to point connectivity needed by a genomics researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill  who is doing collaborative research with a colleague across the globe to a third grade student at Cape Hatteras elementary on the Outer Banks needing fast access to dress up a Power point with a video download.

In 2007, MCNC engineers through a commissioned study found that with bandwidth demand among the rural Community Anchor Institutions served by NCREN growing at 30-40% annually. These Community Anchor institutions served by NCREN would consume the available capacity of the existing broadband infrastructure in rural NC in the next 5-7 years.  Not surprisingly, these were the same areas of the State of North Carolina where the private sector lacked infrastructure to meet the increasing need for broadband service of consumers and small businesses.

MCNC partnered with the private sector, the North Carolina General Assembly, the North Carolina Delegation to Congress and the office of Governor Beverly Perdue to think ahead.  MCNC and its partners chose to look beyond the minimal standards of consumer broadband service – which at the time were undefined for Community Anchor Institutions and 768Kbps Down and 250Kbps up for consumers. The focus became building a middle mile infrastructure that could support a world where our Community Anchor Institutions directly served by the NCREN middle mile could grow their bandwidth use at stable costs for the future but also to provide capacity to commercial service provider wholesalers and retailers to serve the bandwidth needs of our rural citizens.  We wanted to take a major step towards building an infrastructure that could support a world where:

  1. A growing percentage of our K20 curriculum is delivered virtually to students at schools and homes
  2. A growing amount of healthcare assessment and monitoring happens in the home or in smaller regional public or private health facilities helping to realize the goal of lowering healthcare costs and growing healthcare efficiency
  3. A growing number of citizens used the internet to create jobs, apply for jobs, and access all kinds of private and government services

The result of MCNC’s plan to think ahead was two rounds of broadband infrastructure funding from the US Department of Commerce’s Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP).  The facts surrounding this funding are:

  1. A total $144 Million investment that includes $104 Million in Federal funding and $40 Million in private match
  2. A contiguous 2600 mile fiber network that rings the state of North Carolina – this includes 1700 miles of new build and long term lease of 900 miles of existing fiber from private telecoms and electric membership coops
    • As of this date 850 miles of new build are complete and almost all leases are in place.
  3. Enhanced broadband service to available to over 4000 community anchor institutions
    • Scalable service from 1G to 10G to 100G for future growth of bandwidth needs of community anchor institutions
  4. 1250 created or saved jobs
  5. $143M spent with private sector engineering, manufacturing, telecom and construction companies most of which are headquartered in North Carolina or have substantial business interests in the state.
  6. Potentially cheaper broadband prices for over 7 million North Carolinians – by lowering the cost of wholesale bandwidth by making the rural broadband market more competitive
  7. In other words, build an infrastructure that will scale to whatever Healthcare, education, public safety can imagine now and in the future.

We are now more than halfway through implementing the largest recorded single investment in broadband infrastructure in North Carolina’s History. MCNC is looking forward to the benefits that will accrue to the citizens of North Carolina as we put this critical infrastructure into service.

Joe Freddoso is President and CEO of MCNC, where he leads the independent, non-profit corporation in its mission to provide advanced Intranet and Internet networking services to Community Anchor Institutions in North Carolina.