In the middle of the 20th Century, Winston-Salem had a global reputation for producing a product whose use is now being banned worldwide. The product is tobacco, and its trajectory is a fair measure of the path of Winston-Salem's industrial economy, which thrived on a mix traditional to the American South of tobacco, textiles and manufacturing. All three play a role in the economy today, but none are positioned to deliver sustainable growth.
In the mid-1990s, Wake Forest University began work on a plan to connect its medical school and undergraduate campuses with a high-speed network, which ultimately resulted in a 26-mile fiber-optic ring around Winston-Salem. The university's vice president of finance and administration, Dr. John Anderson, saw the potential to use this new asset for community development. He coordinated a series of leadership meetings that, with the active support of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, created an informal working group including the top government, institutional and educational users of communications.
In 1997, they dubbed themselves WinstonNet and, a year later, staged a demonstration at a local school - attended by North Carolina's members of Congress - of video collaboration and multimedia teaching tools. In 1999, WinstonNet won a US Department of Education grant in partnership with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools to connect the school system to the fiber ring and the fiber ring to the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN), a nonprofit, statewide network of educational institutions. Once construction was completed, the school system gained access to the Internet at the blazing speed of 155 Mbps. In the same year, WinstonNet incorporated as a nonprofit organization, with members including the city, the county, the school system, Wake Forest and its subsidiaries, the Chamber of Commerce and the local community college. Each member paid an annual service fee for use of the network, which was now called WinstonNet. Wake Forest began to earn a return on its investment and the members gained some of the best broadband access in the world at a very competitive cost.
Citizens benefited, too. Institutional and public investment spurred demand for broadband and the private-sector investment needed to deliver it. Today, 88% of households in Winston-Salem subscribe to broadband via DSL, cable, fiber, wireless and satellite, as well as 100% of government offices and nearly every business. Carriers including AT&T, Sprint, Time Warner Telecom, ITC Deltacom and DukeNet provide speeds ranging from 256 Kbps for US$20 per month up to 8 Mbps for $55.
But the nonprofit WinstonNet was about much more than connectivity. Its real purpose was to enable Winston-Salem's transition from a manufacturing to knowledge-based economy. The WinstonNet Board believed that the community's future lay in services, logistics and biotechnology, which would place heavy demands on education and training to overcome not only the community's industrial legacy but fast growth in the immigrant population. North Carolina experienced a 37% increase in its immigrant population from 2000 to 2006, by which time Spanish speakers made up 7% of the total.
WinstonNet developed a three-pronged strategy to attack the problem. In 2003, the organization dedicated its first Community Computer Lab at a recreation center. Over the next year, it opened a total of 30 sites offering free computer access to children and adults, with Wake Forest University and Forsyth Technical Community College leading the project and Microsoft and Cisco Foundation providing funding. Today, there are 44 labs operating in community centers, churches, schools and libraries, managing more than 3,500 email accounts and logging over 75,000 user sessions per year.
In 2005, WinstonNet partnered with One Economy, a national nonprofit, using a grant from Cisco, to build a community Web portal. The Beehive Web portal was launched in 2006. With content in English and Spanish at a 5th grade reading level, the portal provides information on money, health, jobs, family, immigration, taxes, government services and computer training and support. The library system has taken responsibility for maintaining the portal, which according to One Economy, is now number three in the nation for the most "hits" to a community Web portal.
In 2006, WinstonNet put the last piece in place through a partnership with Forsyth County Libraries that created a sustainable computer training program. A three-year grant from state government permitted WinstonNet to hire a full-time coordinator, who has created a volunteer group of 40+ trainers, created a standard curriculum of courses and developed a certification program. Classes are taught in both English and Spanish. In its first year, the program completed 189 classes with total attendance of just under 1,000 people. WinstonNet is now developing, in partnership with a local nonprofit, a set of classes for visually impaired and physically challenged computer users as well.
While working to raise the skills level of the entire community, WinstonNet has also contributed to technology and economic development. In 2002, WinstonNet became North Carolina's first Regional High Speed Networking Hub (GigaPoP), boosting Internet connection speeds to 622 Mbps. In 2007, WinstonNet switched on a proof-of-concept WiFi network covering 1 square mile (2.5 km2) as a first step in creating what the organization calls "ubiquitous access to knowledge and information for everyone." Wireless Winston is a new public-private partnership backed by anchor tenancy agreements with the top employers in the community. Its goals are to reduce telecom costs, enhance education, improve student-teacher-parent communication and improve public health and safety.
In 2004, Targacept, a biopharmaceutical company spun out from R.J. Reynolds, joined WinstonNet in a cooperative program to demonstrate state-of-the-art "grid computing" in local schools. WinstonNet is now exploring development of a supercomputing center to be housed at the Piedmont Triad Community Research Park, where Wake Forest is constructing a high-performance data center. This research park, anchored in Winston-Salem's historic downtown business district, will provide 5.7 million square feet (529,547 m2) of "green" commercial space for life science research on land donated to the city by R.J. Reynolds. It is being developed by another public-private partnership called Idealliance and is currently home to five buildings including the Biotechnology Research Facility of Wake Forest University Health Sciences.
Other public and public-private organizations are adding momentum to the development process. The Piedmont Triad Entrepreneurial Network was formed in 2004 to offer programs and resources to fast-growing small businesses in the areas of education, mentoring, networking and capital formation. Wake Forest is developing the Angell Center for Entrepreneurship as an incubator housing 3-5 start-ups at a time for up to 12 months. Among its tenants will be winners of the Triad Entrepreneurial Initiative's annual business plan competition.
In addition to actively supporting these efforts, the city of Winston-Salem has deployed ICT to improve its services. In 2007, it opened a Citizen Contact Center providing one telephone number for access to all city services. Greater convenience for citizens resulted in a significant reduction in total call volume as more service requests were satisfied on the first call. The MyCityofWS service allows citizens to establish a profile on the City's Web site that defines their interests and location, so they can be notified by email of relevant new information. The fire department uses a wireless dispatch system with data routing and imaging, which has helped the department exceed standards for response time and effectiveness.
How does Winston-Salem measure the results of its many investments and partnerships? There have certainly been economic successes. Winston-Salem and Forsyth County now count 37,000 biotech employees as residents, and biotech companies contribute an estimated $10 billion in annual revenue to the area. Dell Computer opened a manufacturing facility in Forsyth County in 2005 that will create another 1,500 jobs and contribute at least $100 million in new investment. But Winston-Salem also measures progress in human terms. WinstonNet is now in discussions with the school district and community leaders on development of a program to place computers in the homes of low-income students. The program proposal covers funding, curriculum integration, teacher training, technical staffing, hardware and broadband connections. If WinstonNet is successful in attracting funding, as it expects, the program will start in 2008/09 with 550 students in middle schools with high percentages of low-income students. Success, then, is measured not only in today's jobs. It is also measured by the community's ability to build a more prosperous and inclusive Broadband Economy for tomorrow's citizens.
Population: 223,000 (Winston-Salem), 320,919 (Forsyth County)
Labor Force: 183,742 (Forsyth County)