October 31, 2012 By Sarah Rich
Officials in Raleigh, N.C., are grooming the city to become a leader in the global economy.
A series of initiatives known as Raleigh Connected is strengthening broadband access and improving the technology skills of residents.
Raleigh already has a significant tech presence as part of North Carolina’s Research Triangle (which also includes the cities of Durham and Chapel Hill). Although the triangle is a hotbed of technology companies and research universities, other parts of Raleigh suffer from a significant digital divide. Raleigh Connected is intended to promote digital inclusion and attract even more high-tech employers to the region.
Connecting Teens to TechnologyAs part of Raleigh Connected, the city developed the Digital Connectors program two years ago to teach young people between the ages of 14 and 21 new technology skills.
Participants receive 150 hours of classroom instruction and in exchange perform 56 hours of community service. The students are expected to serve as mentors, transferring their digital literacy skills to others in the community, said Linda Jones, manager of the Digital Connectors program.
“It’s a multi-generational approach that could include family, friends, neighbors or anyone in the community,” Jones said. “Being equipped with the 21st-century skills, they can transfer those skills to someone else — someone who may not have taken part in the program.”
As of June, 59 students had graduated from the program. Jones added that she’d like to develop a Digital Connectors alumni program to keep students involved after they graduate.
Fay Cobb Payton, an associate professor at North Carolina State University who’s involved with Digital Connectors, said the program prepares students for a wide range of careers — not just traditional tech jobs.
“You need to show young people exactly what computing skills enable them to do for careers in the future. So for instance, you have young people that were in the Digital Connectors program that wanted to be attorneys,” Cobb said. “I can’t imagine an attorney, in the future or currently, not using technology to create briefs, share briefs, share opinions and read all current [U.S.] Supreme Court rulings.”
“The overall objective would be to have a city that is capable of housing any company has the most skilled workforce has plans and strategies for making sure all communities are connected so we have individuals who are workforce ready,” said Raleigh CIO Gail Roper.
Raleigh is already home to open source solutions company Red Hat as well as a branch office for Cisco Systems and an IBM data center. But to attract additional businesses to the city, Raleigh’s fiber plan needs to be in full swing.
Through Raleigh Connected, the city is adding 125 miles of new fiber to its existing downtown fiber ring. The network is expected to be completed next year.
Along with strengthening its fiber infrastructure, Raleigh is providing broadband access to 2,000 low-income homes in the city, and it offers free outdoor Wi-Fi in the downtown area and convention center. In addition, Raleigh’s Digital Connectors program trains local teens how to use technologies like social media and video. Those who complete the program serve as community “ambassadors” who teach friends and family members the skills they’ve learned.
Harvey Schmitt, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said that this year, city officials have been discussing the possibility of laying excess unused fiber (called dark fiber) that can be used in the future, giving Raleigh the additional capacity to support big data initiatives for local companies and others.
“We have folks like hospitals, the universities, we have companies like SAS and Red Hat, and there are a number [of companies] that could take advantage of a fiber network that would expand the availability of the big data movement,” Schmitt said.
For many cities across the U.S., a broadband facelift may not be simple to achieve, given slashed budgets and limited grant funding available for broadband infrastructure. Even with the National Broadband Plan — a road map created by the FCC to help spread affordable, high-speed broadband access nationwide — such access is still very much a fantasy for cities struggling to get basic fiber laid down.
Welcome to Gig.U.
Raleigh is home to North Carolina State University, which banded with 36 other universities to create Gig.U. Short for the University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, Gig.U works to speed up the deployment of next-generation ultra high-speed networks and applications across the U.S.
Raleigh couldn’t work alone to carry out its vision. To move forward with Raleigh Connected, the city needed reliable partnerships, Roper said.
Roper said the key to winning executive support for tech-based initiatives is to connect those programs to economic development. Raleigh worked with One Economy, a global technology nonprofit, and harnessed $1.4 million in federal stimulus funding for Raleigh Connected projects. Companies like IBM and Cisco Systems also extended resources to the city.
“[The value] has to be around promoting a cultural value of innovation. It has to be around entrepreneurship,” she said. “It has to be around closing that gap of individuals who are really not ready to compete in a 21st-century technology culture. It has to be around those things because everybody gains from that.”
Watch video about Raleigh working to connect more citizens to the Internet.
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