Speakers tout benefits of public broadband

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Leaders from the public and private sector converged on the Edna Boykin Cultural Center Wednesday for the second Gig East conference focusing on technology and innovation.

“We are all faced with overwhelming challenges,” said Rick Smith, editor of WRAL TechWire. “Fifty percent of all jobs are expected to be replaced by automation, according to a new study from MIT. Yes, technology is a multi-edged sword, so how do we deal with that?”

Keynote speaker Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard Law School, has traveled the world, learning how communities leverage new technologies to promote economic development and benefit people. She said, in her experience, the communities that thrive are the ones where officials are forward-thinking and embrace the benefits of fiber and advanced wireless networks.

“We have not even begun to understand the new forms of jobs and occupations that will arise from this network, even as others are displaced,” Crawford said.

While Wilson was ahead of the trend a decade ago when it built a publicly funded fiber network — Greenlight Community Broadband — Crawford said American cities are primarily behind the curve compared with communities in Asia and northern Europe.

“San Francisco has been listening to Wilson, thank God, and is considering building a dark fiber network using revenue bonds and some form of public-private partnerships,” she said. “And that news just came out a couple weeks ago, so take a look at San Francisco, who will be the first major American city to catch up to Wilson.”

Crawford was emphatic, though, in communities resisting private development and subsequent ownership of internet infrastructure.

“Their interests may not necessarily align with the long-term interests of the city,” she said. “...So it is stewardship. The city has to think of itself as the steward of its public assets. Again in service to the private marketplace, not competing, but enabling it to happen.”

There were two panel discussions centered around “the evolution of a smarter city” with speakers ranging from Peak Demand CEO Jon Rennie to Gail Roper, a regional fiber expansion specialist for Google.

“I really like the term ‘smart community’ because it emphasizes that it is not just local government. There is not just one group of people that have to make this happen. It is truly everybody — the citizens, the government and the private sector,” said Taylor Kerby, founder and president of Triangle UAS, an unmanned aircraft system company. “And I would define that as everybody coming together and putting this system of technology to work. It is great to have the technology there, but if you’re not implementing it and you’re not using it collaboratively, it is just going to fail.”

Roper said the key to bridging the digital divide — the technological equivalent to the haves and have-nots — is planning and collaboration. Barton College Provost Gary Daynes said encouraging creativity is essential to future growth of smart cities.

“I’ve never lived any place where there are as many entrepreneurial people as in Wilson. Sometimes it is entrepreneurship out of necessity if you have a job that doesn’t get you where you want to go, so I think our obligation as a community here in Wilson is to both keep our eyes open about what is going on in the broader world and be attentive to the entrepreneurial spirit, ideas and innovation that exists here in the community, crossing ages, races and class,” he said. “We have to catalyze those with the ideas and opportunities that allow them to be just as successful, just as innovative as someone who might be bringing a tech company from the Triangle.”

While the availability of high-speed broadband and physical advantages brought Rennie and the manufacturing company to Wilson, he said they’ve stayed because there is more to Wilson.

“It is the community we talk about being connected from a technology standpoint and I think we are, but what really matters is connecting as people,” Rennie said. “I think that is what we found we’ve enjoyed most about Wilson.”

For more information, visit a new website built in conjunction with WRAL TechWire at www.discoverwilson.com/.