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Polk can compete in terms of connectivity, e-Polk says

December 13, 2005 – the Tryon Daily Bulletin –

If “connectivity” is the new economic highway, Polk County appears to be poised to compete with the world for the best jobs, e-Polk Inc. board members said in their annual report to the public last week. e-Polk’s PANGAEA fiber optic network, which went live in July, 2004, has already grown from seven to ten miles in length and may by next spring grow to 42 miles, they reported. PANGAEA will be a key link in the regional fiber network being developed by Congressman Charles Taylor, ERC Broadband network director Hun-ter Goosman said.

Already benefits are being felt. Since operations began, e-Polk Inc.’s biggest customer by far, Polk County Schools, has been able to quadruple its service at half the price. In anticipation of having fiber connectivity, the new Polk County Library building will be equipped for state-of-the-art services. New residential neighborhoods in Polk County are providing fiber-to-the-home options.

Growing need for bandwidth

Speaking to an audience of 75 community leaders, technology vendors and interested citizens last Tuesday at Polk County Middle School, schools technology director Dave Scherping told a story which illustrated the growing need for bandwidth.

It used to be that a “56 kilobit” data line – carrying 56,000 “bits” of data per second – could handle everything Polk County Schools needed, a few emails sent back and forth, said Scherping, an e-Polk Board member. But use of the Internet grew, and soon Scherping said the schools were leasing a “T1” line, carrying 1.5 million bits per second (Mb/s), roughly enough for 24 phone calls at the same time. (1.5 Mb/s is a typical home Internet user’s DSL and cable modem speed.)

At first, Scherping said, the schools leased just one T1 to serve the Stearns Administration building, but later branched out technology offerings to all six school buildings as well as the county bus garage, leasing multiple T1s.

Even that wasn’t going to be adequate as 2004 approached.

“e-Polk came along at just the right time,” Scherping said.

e-Polk offers options

e-Polk was formed in 2001 to take advantage of a statewide initiative, the Rural Internet Access Authority (RIAA), which amassed a $30 million grant pool aimed at bringing the prosperity realized in N.C.’s Research Triangle to the state’s rural counties by leveling the technology playing field.

The e-Polk citizen advisory group, under the leadership of Polk County librarian Mark Pumphrey and project director Ken Rossen, in 2002 won grants of $375,000 from the RIAA and $22,750 from the Polk County Community Foundation to build a seven-mile fiber optic network. e-Polk formed a nonprofit corporation in January 2003 to own and operate that network, which at first stretched just from Sidestreet Pizza in Tryon to Polk County High School.

The network went live in July, 2004 and today is profitable with 18 customers along Hwy. 108 and money in the bank, said e-Polk Inc. president Jeff Byrd (also publisher of the Tryon Daily Bulletin and author of this article).

e-Polk growth

This year, Polk County paid to extend the network two miles to the new middle school, and Cooper-Riis Healing Farm paid to continue that extension yet another mile to serve its healing and research facilities.

As e-Polk operations grew, a timely $70,000 grant from Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation last summer allowed the e-Polk Inc. board to hire Stu Davidson as Technical Account Manager. Davidson was a programmer and technical support consultant in Atlanta for 25 years before moving to Lake Lanier in 2001. e-Polk’s only paid staff, Davidson now maintains the network operations and works with customers and potential clients on a daily basis from offices on the second floor of the Tryon Town Hall.

e-Polk Inc. board member Keven McCammon, a technology business consultant, described the current e-Polk network extension project to participants at last Tuesday’s meeting. McCammon said the extension project has been funded by a $417,000 grant from Advantage West, the state department of commerce economic development office for Western North Carolina. With that money, McCammon said e-Polk hopes to partner with a cable company to build as much as 32 miles of additional fiber by spring 2006.

The grant requires that e-Polk connect to the new Foothills Connect Business & Technology Center being developed in downtown Rutherfordton, but McCammon said e-Polk hopes to build a route from Lake Lure down Hwy. 9 to Sandy Plains Road and out Sandy Plains Road to Rutherfordton.

Developers need connectivity

McCammon said he is also working as a private consultant with Bright’s Creek and other developers in the area to bring fiber to the new residences in those communities.

“Real estate agents are already starting to say that if there is no high speed service available, their clients cannot buy because they cannot operate their businesses or their life-style without it,” McCammon said.

By coincidence, McCammon said Bright’s Creek had begun pulling fiber through conduits laid along its new streets in Sunny View that same day.

PANGAEA, ERC Broadband

Hunter Goosman, director of ERC Broadband, the keynote speaker for the e-Polk meeting Tuesday, said he and the Education Research Consortium (ERC) board see the growing PANGAEA network in Polk County as central to filling in a key gap in the ERC’s regional network. He showed a map of that network, with e-Polk’s PANGAEA providing a spiderweb connection between Spartanburg, Rutherfordton, Black Mountain, Asheville and Hendersonville.

ERC began as a project between college presidents in the region and Congressman Charles Taylor. Today ERC operates a high performance computing center and storage area network in Asheville, and provides services to the National Weather Service data center. Its fiber optic network, ERC Broadband, is steadily growing to connect colleges and institutions and smaller networks like e-Polk throughout Western North Carolina and Upstate S.C. The ERC network first went live in 2003, Goosman said.

Cost-effective speed for Polk County Schools

e-Polk’s July, 2004 PANGAEA network operations start-up came just in the nick of time for Polk County Schools, Scherping said. The state was beginning a project that fall, called NC Wise, in which every teacher would be required, instead of scribbling daily attendance in a book, to go on-line to log attendance in the State Department of Education computer servers in Raleigh. Now, every morning, state administrators know exactly how many students are in school across the state.

Scherping provided an overhead projection graph of Polk County Schools’s Internet usage clearly showing the early morning spikes each day when every teacher goes on line at once to take attendance.

“We could not have done it with T1s,” Scherping said.

Scherping’s office today supports more than 1,000 computers in school offices and classrooms around the county.

“With e-Polk’s PANGAEA network, we went from 1.5 Mb/s to 6 Mb/s. That level of service would not have been available to us at a cost effective basis without e-Polk,” Scherping said. The schools got four times the Internet capacity at less than half the cost multiple T1 lines, he said.

Centralized computing

Not only did Scherping get cost-effective service, but all school facilities were connected to a central school computer network, some with direct PANGAEA fiber connections. Polk County Schools owns a few strands of fiber within the 144-strand e-Polk sheath for their school network. Providing direct fiber connections to those schools not directly connected today is a goal of e-Polk, officers said. Polk County government also owns fibers within the e-Polk sheath for a government network.

A single fiber can carry all the phone traffic of the city of Charlotte. Technology experts call fiber “future proof” because, using the speed of light, its capacity is only limited by the capacity of the equipment to which it is hooked up. By connecting all those school computers, Scherping said he has been able to aggregate a lot of school computer work in one central set of servers. Instead of buying six copies of each needed software package, all the schools share one. Instead of making paper copies of job applicant resumes and physically sending them all around, principals now can view them digitally on their office computers. Purchase orders are all handled from one system, as is bus route mapping.

Teachers in most every Polk County School classroom benefit from plentiful bandwidth and Internet access today, Scherping said. Reference works needed by students and teachers are available on-line.

“It used to be that every kid in the library had to stand around waiting for one student to finish with the ‘R’ encyclopedia,” he said. “Now everyone can have access to it at the same time.” Teachers also can all access state reference materials on standard curriculum and lesson planning.

New Polk middle school: State of the art technology

The new Polk County Middle School took full advantage of the technology available today with, among other things, video conferencing equipment. Using that, students can talk to other students across the state, or share one teacher across wide regions. In one application, Scherping said fourth graders across the state are sharing their experiences in video conferences these days, mountain dwellers telling coastal residents about their lives as part of the social studies curriculum.

Students are “blogging” and creating websites, and teachers are creating websites for parents to use to monitor classroom activities. Teachers are accessing digital video libraries with video materials on thousands of subjects.

High tech for all at library

Mark Pumphrey, vice president of e-Polk Inc., said the new county library building will also be taking advantage of the plentiful and affordable bandwidth e-Polk’s PANGAEA network provides. The library will have five computers in the children’s room, 12 computers in the public Internet access area, and four computers to operate the book catalog system.

Pumphrey said the state Rural Internet Access Authority goals, in addition to expanding access to bandwidth as e-Polk has done with PANGAEA, include providing public Internet access, training and applications. For instance, he said e-Polk would like to help the county develop a countywide Geographic Information System and an e-commerce website where people can transact county business on-line.

“The technology infrastructure in the new library building will be state of the art,” Pumphrey said. “There will be laptop plug-ins and wireless connections available. In the future, we hope to have Radio Frequency Identification Tags (RFID) on books so people can use self-check-out stations. The community meeting room is outfitted and ready for equipment to do video conferencing and distance learning.”

Bright future

e-Polk board member Jim Edwards, planning director for the Isothermal Planning District Commission, said that fiber optic “connectivity” is the highway system in the new world economy.

“We are going to get a network that we can compete with anyone in the world,” he said. “If we are smart about it, Polk County can be as attractive as any place in the world.”