S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/07.0204.speed.htm

LightRail could crack open SC's knowledge economy
By Andy Brack, Publisher

FEB. 4, 2007 - South Carolina is at a technology crossroads.

If it meets a challenge over the next few months, it will join states that provide top researchers with the high-speed, high-volume technology infrastructure. In turn, that has the potential to open up amazing new knowledge-economy opportunities for more jobs.

But if the state doesn't meet the challenge, it may start losing renowned scientists and researchers whose work now requires the ability to move a lot of data over an extremely fast fiber-optic network that's connected to the rest of the world.

"It has to happen," said retired Lexington businessman Samuel Tenenbaum, who serves as vice-chair of the state's Research Centers for Economic Excellence. "If you don't do it, everything will collapse in this state. Either we stay horse-and-buggy or we go to warp speed."

The project is called South Carolina LightRail. Initial implementation will connect the state's three major research universities - Clemson, the University of South Carolina and the Medical University of South Carolina - and three partner hospitals, Greenville Hospital System, Palmetto Health and Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System. Over time, more sites across the state will be added.

The project's impact to researchers is phenomenal, as highlighted in an example involving an ongoing brain imaging research collaboration between USC and MUSC. Currently, it takes 9 minutes to transmit a high-resolution, complicated MRI image over existing networks. Through LightRail, it would take seconds - - and the possibility for distortion would be significantly reduced. (If it's your brain that researchers are looking at for a diagnosis, you wouldn't want an image to be 99 percent correct, would you?)

"As we begin to move very complicated clinical images across the state, the volume of this traffic and the size of the transmissions will become the bottleneck," said Dr. Ray Greenberg, president of MUSC. "For the people using the data, it will be like sitting in gridlock on I-26 in rush hour. LightRail would be the equivalent of adding dedicated express lanes to speed information around these bottlenecks."

It will cost $8 million to $10 million to get the hardware in place to get LightRail started and, if funded, it could be working in about six months, officials say. The state Commission on Higher Education has included a $4.5 million request - a third each from the research universities - to state lawmakers to fund this year. The rest of the cost may come from interest monies that have accumulated in the multi-million dollar endowed chairs account funded by lottery revenues to attract smart professors and researchers.

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"Since interest money from the endowed chairs program has not yet been approved for any purpose, this is breaking new ground, and the board, understandably, wants to make sure that it is done in a manner consistent with the original legislation," Greenberg said. "This is an expensive venture, but in the big scheme of economic competitiveness, it is both essential and a modest investment. "

Dr. William F. Hogue, USC's vice president for information technology and its chief information officer, says the state needs SC LightRail because it currently is operating at a competitive disadvantage. He said the state could lose the ability to win more than $117 million in targeted federal grants without the new technology framework.

Two or three years ago, the state was essentially on par with other parts of the country, he said. But when a national, dedicated high-speed network opened for researchers, the state didn't participate. Now, as costs have actually gone down, it's a perfect time for the investment.

"We're not decades behind, but in information technology generation terms, we're about two generations behind," Hogue said. "This [investment] will allow us to make up a three-year gap."

It's almost a no-brainer for state lawmakers to approve investment in the high-speed network. Why? Because if we continue to work hard to attract smart people to serve as endowed professors at research universities, they have to have the tools they need to do the smart work we want them to do. If they don't have the right technology, the whole concept of luring smart folks and their research teams to the state to do work that can create new high-paying jobs here just doesn't make sense.

Andy Brack, publisher of S.C. Statehouse Report, can be reached at brack@statehousereport.com.

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Green buildings get push
From the paid-subscriber issue of Statehouse Report

FEB. 2, 2007 -- South Carolina may be poised to be the first Southern state to adopt green building standards thanks to a quartet of bills put forward this week by Sen. Jim Ritchie (R-Spartanburg), dubbed "Energy Independence for South Carolina's Future."

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