BY STEVE TOWNS, FEATURES EDITOR

North Carolinas IT explosion rests on a solid foundation.

Southern states have begun using information technology to both transform government operations and revitalize rural economies. Like their counterparts throughout the nation, southern political leaders and IT officials are scrambling to roll out online services for citizens and businesses. In progressive states, this pressure has sparked rampant IT progress as jurisdictions implement technology they view as vital to future political and economic success.

But the South faces unique barriers to equitably delivering online services and other Internet-age opportunities to rural communities. Therefore, IT initiatives often include strong digital divide and economic development components.

"The more successful states in the South are now looking at where their growth has occurred and where it hasnt occurred," said Jim Clinton, executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board. "Theyre seeing a real clustering of success around what are becoming cyber-cities. The rural communities, in many cases, have not made progress at the same level."

In other words, while Atlanta and North Carolinas Research Triangle Park attract IT investments and talent rivaling traditional technology strongholds, such as Californias Silicon Valley, other Southern communities are not so fortunate. Indeed, the poorest rural communities havent reached the Industrial Age, much less the Digital Age.

This series of profiles, which begins with an in-depth look at North Carolina, explores efforts in a handful of leading Southern states to tackle these challenges and position themselves for success in the emerging Internet economy.

Getting Started

It took North Carolina just 45 days to build a portal that raises the bar for government-run Web sites -- ample evidence that the states commitment to rapid, strategic technology deployment has begun to pay off.

Teaming with Andersen Consulting and portal pioneer Yahoo, North Carolina hammered traditional government Web content into user-friendly packages designed for citizens, businesses and state employees. Dubbed NC @ Your Service, the site stirs in extras like stock quotes, sports scores and weather reports, blurring the line between private- and

public-sector Web offerings. In true portal fashion, users also may personalize their opening page and choose the topics they wish to track.

But the gleaming new site is just the most visible product among a flurry of technology activity under way in North Carolina.

"North Carolinas economy is in the midst of a historic transformation," said Gov. James Hunt, who has spearheaded the states IT efforts. "In recent years, weve gone from a largely rural economic engine driven by agriculture and manufacturing to a 21st-century model of high technology. And were going to do everything we can to increase the role of science and technology in our economy to continue our growth and improve our quality of life."

That commitment was evident throughout the first half of 2000 as the state set a frantic pace for unveiling technology plans and projects.

In February, North Carolina received recommendations for closing the digital divide from a high-profile Rural Prosperity Task Force chaired by former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. Those recommendations led to an agreement with the states three major telecommunications companies to bring high-speed Internet access to all areas of North Carolina by 2003.

In April, the states Office of Information Technology Services (ITS) released a comprehensive plan for implementing electronic government, reforming IT asset management, streamlining IT procurement, improving financial reporting for IT investments and creating an enterprise-wide security strategy.

In June, the state unveiled a 30-year technology blueprint that recommends creating tax credits to support technology research and development, endorses regional technology-based economic development programs and urges North Carolina to brand itself globally as a high-tech state.

In September, the state repositioned ITS as a cabinet-level agency,

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  |  Editor

Steve Towns is editor of Government Technology, and executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government Technology,Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market.