Wake County

Tar Heel: Phillip Emer is bringing reliable Internet to NC’s schools

hlynch@newsobserver.com

The transition to digital learning is a daunting challenge for the state’s schools, one that requires both new technologies and revamped approaches to learning.

Though he’s an engineer, not an educator, Phillip Emer has spent the past decade easing this transition by focusing on a key requirement for its success: reliable and equitable high-speed Internet in all of the state’s schools.

Emer, technology director at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, helped create a comprehensive system of Internet connectivity in the state’s more than 2,600 schools that has become a national model.

The effort moved a state that earned a “D” for access to technology in a 2006 Education Week report to one where virtually all schools have access to high-speed connections. In the wake of its success, Emer has been called by the federal government and other states to help craft plans to ensure all schools have the bandwidth they need to support a growing array of digital tools.

Now that they’ve gotten the connections to the schools, Emer and his team are working to ensure that the wireless connections inside them can handle the increasing number of mobile devices – a need that will continue to grow as a 2013 law that shifts state funds from textbooks to digital learning is implemented.

That effort got a boost last week from $23 million in federal funds to expand wireless access, which Gov. Pat McCrory said in a statement is “as vital to classrooms as blackboards, textbooks and pencils once were.”

“Phil has had and continues to have a critical role in leveling the playing field for every learner in the state,” says Myra Best, who worked closely with Emer as an education adviser under former Gov. Bev Perdue and now directs the nonprofit Digital Learning Institute. “He’s the reason we were able to create a plan for school connectivity that gives all students the access they deserve.”

From IBM to public sector

Emer, who grew up in Maryland, didn’t always envision a career in computers. He says he planned to be an English major until he met a group of engineers while playing soccer at IBM, where his mother worked as a secretary.

He figured the employees who showed up at 4 p.m. in their nice cars had pretty good jobs, so he followed their advice to study electrical engineering at a school where IBM had an internship program, Virginia Tech.

“Literally five years later, I was working for IBM, back on the soccer field playing with the same guys,” he says.

He was with IBM during the explosion of the Internet onto the public scene, and his focus became creating large computer networks, such as the ones that connect the air traffic control system and international banks.

He came to Raleigh in 1992 with IBM, and started earning his master’s degree from N.C. State University. Upon graduating, he was recruited to run that university’s computer network, his first public sector job.

From there, he worked at a startup called Carolina Broadband. But he was soon back in the education world at MCNC, a nonprofit based at Research Triangle Park that helps build broadband infrastructure for education and research.

The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation hadn’t even opened when Emer was hired to lead its technology division. The institute, based at N.C. State, was created to bring cutting edge research into practice in the state schools.

Emer had hardly started when he was asked by state education leaders to lead the schools’ connectivity efforts, an initiative started under Perdue to ensure equitable and reliable Internet access across the state.

He’s been doing that work ever since, working closely with state education officials and policy-makers under three administrations led by Democrats and Republicans, as well as the Federal Communications Commission.

Hard lessons

The initial push for connectivity in North Carolina began among educators who worried that the lack of Internet access in rural areas was holding students back.

“There was this sense that the Internet could be this great equalizer, but not unless everyone had access,” Emer says.

Emer’s biggest challenge starting out, he says, was the patchwork of existing Internet connections used by districts across the state. Most received funding from the FCC’s E-Rate program, which helps districts pay for Internet access, but the rates they paid and the kinds of equipment they used varied widely.

Some rural counties were paying several times what more urban ones were for Internet, and Emer knew he could bring cheaper and more reliable Internet to everyone by negotiating with service providers as a unified group.

But he was surprised to find that officials in many local districts, leery of state mandates, didn’t like the idea of a centralized system.

“I had this great project that was going to help everyone, and I expected they’d greet me with fruit baskets, but they were very, very skeptical,” he says. “I learned some hard lessons.”

So the electrical engineer found himself jumping in his car to drive to far-flung districts to discuss the project with key opponents, who he eventually won over.

The e-rate program paid about 80 percent of the Internet access bill for most districts, but without state funds, districts were making up the difference.

Emer and his team were able to cobble together enough money to make districts a compelling offer: sign on to the state program, and get all the bandwidth you need for free.

Districts overwhelmingly complied, making the first phase of connectivity a success that other states continue to emulate.

Keeping up with tech

But all of that high-speed access doesn’t do much if the network equipment used inside of the schools can’t provide wireless access to an increasing number of iPads, laptops and other devices now used in classrooms.

“In a lot of schools, the technology inside hasn’t kept up,” Emer says. “You’re in a school with hundreds or thousands of kids, you might have hundreds of people trying to connect at once. You need equipment that can handle that.”

Emer and his team compiled all of the information they could gather to estimate how much it would cost to create adequate wireless networks in all of the state’s schools and then keep them up-to-date, keeping in mind details down to the material each building is made of.

He worked closely with the FCC as he developed an estimate of about $150 per student per year, and the agency has agreed to provide a similar level of funding, including the money announced last week.

The money will enable the project to begin, though so far only 61 of the state’s more than 100 school districts have signed on to the plan. So Emer’s efforts to complete the statewide access puzzle will continue.

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Phillip Emer

Born: December 1967, Bethesda, Md.

Residence: Wake Forest

Career: Director of technology planning and policy, the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, N.C. State University

Education: B.S. electrical engineering, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; M.S. computer science, N.C. State University

Family: Wife and three children

Notable: Emer came close to joining the U.S. Navy as an undergraduate as part of its nuclear propulsion program. “I had the pen in my hand,” he says, “but I decided I couldn’t stand to be in a nuclear submarine underwater for six months at a time.”

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