The North Carolina Information Highway: A Bumpy Road to a Better Tomorrow

Article excerpt

"I can see every city having one" - such was the 1877 prophecy of a Western Union executive in a memo to employees. The object of these great expectations was no less than the telephone. Today the object of great expectations in the telecommunications world is the information highway. In a technological sense, the concept is perhaps not so extreme as the telephone was in 1877. Switches and multiplexing equipment have been around for a long time; the highway is simply based on the use of better and faster switches and multiplexers. In terms of expectations, however, the highway aligns itself well with Western Union's optimistic prophecies.

In spite of the seemingly endless list of potential highway applications, the project is not without its problems. Deregulation, standardization, the need to assure information privacy and industry convergence are just a few of the issues that will challenge the development of the state and national network for years to come. These challenges are dynamic in that technological advances and government regulation changes are constant and occasionally extreme. Nonetheless, in the midst of this chaotic telecommunications environment, North Carolina is leading the way in the development of its highway.

THE NCIH PROJECT

"The Tower of Babel" is how Secretary of State Rufus Edmisten describes the computer network currently in place within NCSG. In 1992, a Government Performance Audit Committee gave Edmisten and other government officials good reason for such analogies. The committee cited outdated equipment, a lack of competitive purchasing and, last but not least, a proliferation of data processing and telecommunication systems that did not interact with one another. As a result of this lack of planning and coordination through the years, the auditors noted limited productivity and extreme information duplication.

Because the state typically spends nearly $97 million a year on information and telecommunications services, legislators were extremely concerned about the findings in the audit. As a result, an Information Resource Management Commission (IRMC), chaired by Secretary of State Edmisten, was established.

The Information Resource Management Commission

Edmisten declares that IRMC will "have more impact on how state government will look twenty years from now than any other body that [he] can think of, other than the General Assembly." When the Commission was established in 1992, the legislature armed the group with clear-cut powers to make or break state agency projects based on a detailed set of technical standards.

IRMC meetings tend to be standing room only. State agency representatives are present to promote their projects with committee members, although communications vendors represent a sizable group as well. These vendor lobbyists are extremely interested in seeing what level of equipment the IRMC is requiring, not only in order to promote their existing equipment, but to provide product development guidance as well. The IRMC's involvement with the NCIH project has only heightened vendor interest in the commission's meetings.

The IRMC's architecture committee was established to create universal technical standards that can be applied to computer equipment purchased for state projects. These standards are intended to allow for a variety of hardware and software connections, to avoid any bias toward certain suppliers and, most importantly, to allow for flexibility so that future technologies can be integrated with minimal effort. The IRMC architecture committee has and will continue to be an approving authority for the NCIH project. As a result of this level of involvement, NCIH Project Coordinator and senior policy adviser Jane Patterson is in constant contact with the committee.

Pilot Projects

The current NCSG telecommunications jungle is only one impetus for the NCIH project. A number of pilot projects have been in progress for the past several years, and the success of these programs has further encouraged the development of the NCIH. …