Rural counties plugging in

By Daniel Pearson

RALEIGH, N.C. – Giving rural North Carolinians access to the Internet is the focus of the e-NC Initiative, a state-backed effort that has awarded $1.47 million in grants to 93 programs throughout the state.

The initiative is distributing $12,000 each to 64 rural counties, such as Perquimans, Clay and Harnett, where the money will be used to establish “public access points” in libraries and schools.

The remaining 29 grants, announced in March, focus on “digital literacy” programs that train rural residents and senior citizens in basic computer and Internet skills. The awards ranged from $3,810 to $60,000 and averaged about $20,000.

Funds are being used to buy new equipment and hire new workers, develop training standards, teach people how to use different computer applications, teach new skills to disabled computer users and help senior citizens keep in touch with family members by e-mail.

The Perquimans County Schools in Eastern North Carolina, for example, will use its $32,000 grant to continue efforts it has already launched, says Victor Eure, the schools’ technology coordinator.

The schools, for example, developed a community technology learning center with a $125,000 federal grant through the state Department of Public Instruction, but that funding is about to run out, he says.

 “If we did not have these new grants we’d have to stop right in the middle of the project,” he says.

Perquimans will use the digital-literacy training money to provide classroom instruction – including one-on-one mentoring by high school students — for senior citizens, business owners and other county residents who want to develop their computer skills.

A county study found 40 percent of Perquimans’ 11,000 residents do not have access to the Internet, and 28 percent of those respondents did not complete a high school education, Eure says.

Thanks to the statewide initiative, programs such as online completion of graduate-equivalency courses, now will be available to Perquimans residents, he says.

Andy Gibson, technology director for Clay County Schools in Western North Carolina, says the funding for the county will help buy and install fiber-optic networking gear in existing buildings, buy new equipment, hire and train staff members and establish new Internet connections at Moss Memorial Library in Hayesville for the country’s 8,775 residents.

“The grants are making a true difference in our area because the only place the public can gain access to a high-speed Internet connection was through Clay County schools,” Gibson says. “Connectivity is so important to us, yet we are so far removed from the rest of the state.”

Oppie Jordan, an e-NC commissioner, says a key factor in awarding grants was whether the counties had shown “how they plan to sustain their initiative after the grant period.”

e-NC was created in 2000 by state lawmakers and launched with $30 million from the former MCNC, a state-backed nonprofit information-technology and electronics research center that recently split into two divisions and is tentatively calling itself the N.C. Research and Economic Development Institute.

The grants, and e-NC itself, are supported through private funds by more than 50 companies throughout the state from all sectors of the economy.  

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