Remembering Why: Broadband Leadership for the 21st Century Economy

Some things are worth repeating. Recognizing that North Carolina was at the vanguard of technology deployment in the 1990s, CLIC’s North Carolina chapter, NC Broadband Matters, engaged a keynote speaker in April who received a standing ovation after he spoke about how North Carolina can be a technology leader again. The speaker, four-term Governor James B. Hunt (1977-1985, 1993-2001) drew praise and laughter from his audience, as he advised a large crowd at the North Carolina Rural Center that the key to broadband leadership for the 21st century economy is for them to engage in their own future and not believe “those who tells you your dream is not possible.”

Governor  Hunt parlayed his lessons from growing up on a farm in rural, eastern North Carolina to speak to the importance of establishing access today to modern Internet infrastructure for everyone in the state. He talked about how North Carolina residents stepped in and organized to preserve the things they knew they needed to survive, and to ensure “a good life” for their communities.  He talked about how the farmers organized when they worried that the lifeblood of their livelihood—their soil—was blowing away, and how they relied on themselves to improve their community. He spoke of the peaks in technology changes imprinted in his memories, such as the day his grandmother first obtained electricity and the election of state officials who changed dirt roads to paved roads.

As he put it: “Why did I say all this? To tell you there have been many times throughout our history when we have seen the needs of people and we have thought about it, and we planned about it, and we decided to do some real things, some big things, some important things to improve our lives.  And we have done it.  Don’t you sit here today and think that what folks have talked about here is impossible.”[1]

 “We got electricity put in by working hard understanding what it could mean to your life, to your family, and your community, and people worked hard to get electricity

Hunt reminded the audience that North Carolina was the first state to deploy fiber across the state in 1994. He and his colleagues called it an “information highway” and he remembered how no one knew what that meant and instead suggested it was impossible. “Now, it was difficult to explain it to people. When you’re going to do big things in the public, you have to talk to people about your ideas. First of all, they have to be based on people’s needs, and then you have to talk to them about the idea you have, and they have, and develop an approach to it. I remember how difficult it was to explain this to a lot of the legislators. And everybody else, really. And we were asking to put funding into it. ‘What do you mean you want $7 million for an information highway…? ‘” [2]

 “We have built this country. We have built our communities. We saw what we needed to have, to have a good life for our families, our children, our communities, and we have gone out there and historically done something about it.

Throughout his message, Hunt noted the importance of public-private partnerships and bipartisan support. “We all came together and talked about this new technology; What it was and how it worked and we talked about how we could have it. Well, we developed a public private partnership; and it took alot of educating. It took alot of thinking, it took alot of educating people, and deciding to do things. And figuring out how to do them. Which is what you are working on now. We got our first appropriation of $4 million, and Governor Cooper of Nashville and Representative Charles Preston from Catawba County led that for us, always approaching this in a bi-partisan kind of way. And we got that approved and started got it moving forward in the General Assembly.[3]

And then, slowly, Hunt read, one by one, a list of 32 counties in the state that still do not have access to 25Mbps/3Mbps internet access (the FCC’s definition of the minimum level of broadband needed to fully participate in modern life). He spurred the audience on: “I am glad you had a background that has made you aware of the need for all of this. And the potential for it, and a sense that it can be done.  Don’t you let people tell you this can’t be done. I know the financing challenges are big. You have some people here with some money. All that tobacco money does not have to go to Wilson County,” he said, to laughter. “There’s a lot of different ways to do it, you know.” [4]

 “I think it’s time we make a big decision that we’re going to do it in a big way. We are going to help all of our people. Give everybody who lives in North Carolina, every child and family, the chance to be all they can be.

Governor Hunt closed by challenging the audience to believe in themselves and in their long history.  And not to be satisfied with low expectations. He said “we’re talking about opportunity, we are talking about equal opportunity, we are talking about full opportunity. To become all that you can be and ought to be.  You folks can make that happen. This work can help make that happen. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. We’ve done things bigger than this before. This country has won wars. North Carolina has built a great economy. Think about where we are here today.”

“… let’s don’t be satisfied with low expectations and leaving people out and not becoming what we can be. I am proud of you all. Everyone of you is here for a purpose. You’ve got a job to do in this. You sense what’s possible.  I can tell it in your faces… So I commend you. I am proud of you.  Let’s make North Carolina all that it can be.

All that it should be.

All that it must be.” [5]

See more on twitter at  #NCBroadbandMattersNOW

[1] Governor Hunt Speaks: Part 1: 13:22

[2] Governor Hunt Speaks Part 2 at :54.

[3] Governor Hunt Speaks Part 2 at 2:27

[4] Governor Hunt Speaks Part 4: at 0:17

[5] Governor Hunt Speaks Part 6 at 5:08