By RICK SMITH, WRALTechWire Editor
DURHAM, N.C. — Elise Kohn, the recently hired senior adviser and program director for North Carolina’s Next Generation Network project, has a huge job on her hands: Helping bring ultra-fast network access to the Triangle and Triad.
But to say she is excited rather than daunted by the task ahead would be quite accurate. Based in Durham, she is working with NC NGN representatives from university representatives at Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, Wake Forest, the Triangle J Council of Governments and the cities as well as towns that are participating in the project aiming to bring a Google Fiber-like project to North Carolina.
In an exclusive Q&A with WRALTechWire, Kohn says organizers were surprised by the number of responses to the former Request for Proposal that outlined the NC NGN’s requirements. There were so many, in fact, that she says timeline for selection and deployment has been pushed back. But the group still hopes to launch service across the Triangle and Triad by the fourth quarter of next year.
In our conversation, Kohn talks about her own background, the excitement of the project, and the private sector demand (including an acknowledged bid by Time Warner Cable) to bring to North Carolina a project similar to Google’s far-reaching projects in Kansas City as well as Austin, Texas.
The response to Google’s projects has been increased competition for customers in Kansas City and Austin. Do you expect/hope that the same might happen here?
The RFP process itself has reinforced that there is corporate interest in competing to provide such a network for the region.
What is the soonest we might expect to see a giganet in operation in at least some parts of the Triangle and Triad?
Once we conclude the RFP process, the successful vendor or vendors will begin a complex process of assessing demand across our communities, analyzing and engineering their network deployment plans, securing the necessary permits and approvals, and actually building out the network itself. If all goes well, we hope that service will begin by the fourth quarter 2014.
What is your role in the project going forward?
I joined the project in April as Senior Advisor & Program Director. My background is in investment banking, but I also served as the Adoption Director for the National Broadband Plan and Policy Advisor in the FCC before working with Blair Levin to launch the national Gig.U effort. I coordinate interactions with a variety of stakeholders to help the process run as smoothly as possible and advise the Steering Committee as they further the goals outlined in the RFP.
More generally stated, my role is to do whatever I can to help support the participating municipalities and universities in their efforts to secure ultra high-speed connectivity for their communities, in order to be leaders in the new information economy.
What excites you most about the project?
I’m excited about the way this project could have a meaningful impact on the day-to-day lives of all citizens, including those currently underserved, and ensure that our communities maintain their reputations as hubs of innovation. For example, using applications that already exist students will be able to engage in high-quality, multi-media learning activities that can make lessons more real and relevant to them.
Other applications would allow seniors and chronically-ill patients to be monitored and consult with medical specialists from their homes which can improve care and quality of life. Bringing this technology to our communities now allows our citizens to create other disruptive applications that shape the future and transform entire industries. And, this isn’t just about the six communities currently involved in the project.
As has occurred in the Kansas City area, we would expect that anyone upgrading our networks would eventually expand their offerings to surrounding communities. In fact, in some ways it may be easier for a provider to expand into other communities in North Carolina because we know from our conversations with other communities that the demand exists, and earlier efforts like the statewide MCNC network may make it easier for providers to expand their offerings to other geographies. So, this project, particularly in combination with other efforts, could have a wide-reaching impact for the entire state.
Beyond the impact for the region and state, I’m also excited about the opportunities the project provides me personally. I considered similar positions elsewhere, but was drawn to the NC NGN project because of the people involved and the reputations and collaborative spirit of the member communities and universities.
Everyday, I’m working with and learning from an incredible group of municipal and university CIOs recognized as leaders in their fields. And beyond municipal and university leaders, the project allows me to meet a diverse group of forward-thinking North Carolina leaders, from the private, public and non-profit sectors, who are focused on making North Carolina a leader in broadband connectivity. Having a chance to learn from the experiences of people like the the CEO of MCNC[ Joe Freddoso], senior officials from local service providers, and leadership from Chambers of Commerce – to name a few – is a tremendous and unique opportunity.
As I understood it, eight companies responded to the RFP. Is that number correct? And where they individual entities or were some of them partnerships? What are the specific next steps?
Yes, we received eight responses. Some of the submissions came from individual entities and others came from partnerships. The number of viable proposals exceeded our expectations, which is part of the reason the process is taking longer than initially anticipated.
After reviewing the written submissions we began diligence and a more intense series of discussions within our team, with respondents to the RFP, and with others. We expect to continue those discussions until our communities have acceptable agreements with one or more vendors or determine that none are suitable. As with any negotiation process, the timeline is a bit fluid. We want to allow ourselves time to reach the best result for the communities involved even if doing so means the process may stretch on longer than originally anticipated.
This project is the first of its kind in the country—a group of communities working together to accelerate the deployment of world leading networks. The regional approach has the advantage of creating scale that is attractive to potential vendors. The unique nature of the effort and number of parties involved may elongate the process, but we think spending a little more time upfront will lead to the best result for all of our communities in the long run.
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