CLIC NC

NC Legislators Should Encourage, not Disconnect, Modern Rural Internet

Background: A tiny, rural town in North Carolina has gigabit internet from a community-owned fiber provider, Wilson Greenlight, and the big cable and telephone companies want it disconnected. Today a local newspaper printed an editorial from an industry front group (just like the one these monopolies used in 2010 and 2011). Titled “City-Owned  Broadband Squeezes Taxpayers” the “American Taxpayers Alliance” in essence suggested that NC legislators should disconnect gigabit internet service in rural Pinetops because “municipal broadband poses a significant threat to taxpayers.” The real story of what is happening in Pinetops is found in a local letter to the editor from a Pinetops Town Commissioner, reprinted below . While it is not true that Greenlight uses taxpayer money to run their network, it is true that Centurylink is getting more than $40 million in public funds through the federal Connect America Fund with which they are building old internet technology (10Mbps/1Mbps) to their NC rural customers. Having no internet choice and access to only old internet for your community — that sounds like the death knell for local rural economic growth — and the real “significant threat” to taxpayers.

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Legislators Should Help Promote Internet Access, 

by Suzanne Coker Craig, Pinetops Town Commissioner

Every one of the 600 homes in rural Pinetops – in economically struggling Edgecombe County – has access to symmetrical, fiber-to-the-home, gigabit internet service. Not even Raleigh has that. So why are state legislators trying to disconnect us and take away the biggest economic and education advantage we have had in decades? Why are they siding with big telecom corporations rather than their rural constituents whose livelihoods are being crippled by antiquated internet service?

In 2011, the telecom industry pushed the NC Legislature to pass a law limiting the City of Wilson’s internet service area to Wilson County, even though Wilson is a long-time utility provider to Pinetops and other small towns in neighboring counties. The Federal Communication Commission ruled in 2015 to preempt this law, which allowed Pinetops to invite Wilson to bring its fiber internet service (“Greenlight”) to the town in March 2016. In May, the State challenged the FCC decision and won, which will force Greenlight to disconnect Pinetops. Rep. Susan Martin (R-Wilson), Rep. Shelley Willingham (D-Edgecombe), and Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D- Wilson), Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram (D-Martin) and Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga) introduced legislation to keep Pinetops connected, but the bills appear to be stalling because of intense lobbying by the big telecoms. Rep. Jeff Collins (R-Nash) has even introduced a bill that would force Greenlight out of Pinetops by a specific date.

We hear that the big telecoms are telling legislators that they  are “upgrading” our little town with modern, even fiber based internet. Our residents (their customers) tell a different story. Their “high speed” internet (sometimes 10Mbps/1Mpbs) buffers and crashes regularly and customer service is a joke. Our overworked regional technician serves from Fayetteville to north of Greenville. Greenlight by comparison provides us fiber-to-the-home symmetrical gigabit internet if we want it. Their customer service is hyper-responsive and was even in town the day after Hurricane Matthew, hooking up and servicing lines for emergency responders. The other providers were nowhere to be seen in hard-hit Pinetops.

Access to modern internet is vital our town’s future. Legislators need to give us the freedom to choose internet partners we can depend on to improve our economy, educational opportunities and quality of life. Pinetops should be able to keep Greenlight and legislators should be encouraging, not disconnecting, modern internet access for our rural communities.

NC Anti-Competitive Broadband Law to Disconnect Rural Pinetops from its Gigabit Internet by Halloween

Listen to this great interview by the Institute for Local Self Reliance of one of Pinetops’ Town Commissioners, Suzanne Coker-Craig, who is forced to watch her rural Gigabit town be disconnected from Wilson Greenlight internet service because of North Carolina’s anti-competitive state law (commonly known as H129).

Said Coker-Craig: “This is a situation where Pinetops and other rural areas of North Carolina are not being served by private providers with high speed good quality internet service. So we see this very similarly to how power was provided back in the 30s and 40s when rural areas could not get power, local governments stepped in. And this is the same thing for us. We consider that high speed quality internet service in today’s economy is a utility. And when you can’t have private providers willing to do this, why not let progressive municipal governments like Wilson help us out with this?And so we think this law is really a significant hindrance. Our areas are already struggling economically, and we are losing population. This is only going to further that.  It is not going to allow us to help ourselves grow, to help ourselves, pick ourselves up out the economic slump we are already in.”

Her audio interview is found here.

Like her Facebook page: “NC Small Towns Need Internet Access”.

For Rural Pinetops, Being a Gigabit City is More than A CuriosiTees

Curiositees in Pinetops image

CuriosiTees is a screen printing and custom t-shirt store in a tiny rural town called Pinetops, NC (population ~1300). But it’s more than that. It’s a testament to the economic impact of finally getting access to fiber to the home speeds and internet choice in North Carolina’s rural homelands. It’s evidence that community-run fiber networks can bring modern infrastructure and economic hope.

Suzanne Coker Craig owns CuriosiTees. She is practically giggly when talking about her super fast internet connection from Greenlight, a community-owned fiber network owned by neighboring Wilson. Wilson extended Gigabit internet service to Pinetops four months ago after the FCC preempted a 2011 North Carolina state law (H129) that had effectively prohibited Wilson from providing internet service where it already provided electricity outside of Wilson County. The alleged reason for the law was to “level the playing field,” but in reality it has left large portions of the state, including its rural areas, with a single service provider. In that monopoly environment, there were no incentives to modernize service, especially in rural areas.

Suzanne used to be a subscriber to Centurylink DSL service at her Pinetops home, but years ago she just turned it off . “We weren’t using it because it used to take forever; it just wasn’t viable.” She now has Greenlight’s 40 Mbps upstream and downstream service. “It’s just so very fast,” she said.

Greenlight’s upload speeds are particularly critical for Suzanne’s custom screen printing business where everything is hyper time sensitive. “We wow our customers with our ability to turn their orders around quickly, even when they order them late. Reliable internet is at the heart of that. We exist on ‘on-time inventory.’ We work with a Charlotte company for our apparel. If we get our order in by 5 p.m. from here, the next day it will be delivered. That’s really important for business.” Before Greenlight, Suzanne described how “We had been sweating it out.”  Suzanne’s tee-shirt store only had access to 800 Kbps DSL upload speed. She would talk to the modem. “Please upload by 5 p.m. Please upload.” Now she can just go home and put her order in at the last minute. “We are comfortable it will upload immediately….It’s just so much faster. Super fast.” Suzanne’s business also requires a fair shake of administrative work, sales tax reports, document exchanges, uploading artwork that represent dense data file transmissions. To save time, she does her administrative work from home. “Having Greenlight has just been very beneficial for our business.”

But as a Town Commissioner, Suzanne also recognizes the long term economic benefits this infrastructure will have for her community. She sees its merit for retaining and attracting the young people in the community, and drawing in residents and businesses from just over the town limits, where Greenlight has not provided service.  “My 21 year old nephew is a  recent college graduate who is very tech savvy. I mentioned to him that we had Greenlight [Gigabit] service in Pinetops. His eyes popped open.  He was really impressed. I think this service will help us engage with young people who are shocked that a little town like ours would have Gigabit internet.”  Suzanne also described how residents who live just over the town’s municipal line “are jealous.  They keep asking me how can I get that service here?” They are frustrated they live only a few minutes away. The implications for Pinetops real estate values are obvious.

“I just see a brighter future for our town now,” she reflected. “ It’s a neat selling point. It’s difficult in small rural areas to get good technology-based companies. This now opens the door for us to recruit just those kinds of businesses…. It’s hard to imagine a business that does not need internet access” and now tiny rural Pinetops has a Gigabit of it, thanks to Wilson Greenlight.

Update: On August 10, 2016, the Sixth Circuit ruled against the FCC’s preemption of North Carolina’s broadband law based on a narrow states authority issue, noting  “Our holding today is a limited one.  We do not question the public benefits that the FCC identifies in permitting municipalities to expand Gigabit Internet coverage.” We wait on whether this means Greenlight will have to turn off its Gigabit service to tiny, rural Pinetops.

For Rural Pinetops, being a Gigabit City Means Business

Mercer Transport Company image

Many people would think that a blog about a small rural town becoming a Gigabit city would be about the miracles of speed.  But the real story is much deeper. It is about what it feels like to finally have internet choice, to have reliable internet service in an information dependent economy, to be treated with respect by customer service agents, and to finally feel hope – actual excitement — about the future economic opportunities for your rural town.

You can see this through the experiences of Brent Wooten. Brent is a sales agent and Manager for Mercer Transportation, a freight management business with an office in tiny, rural Pinetops, North Carolina. Pinetops is now served by Wilson’s community-owned, Gigabit fiber network.  Brent deals with trucks. He moves freight around the country. He deals with time — being on time. But he’s actually an information worker in a knowledge economy.  “I am in the transportation business,” said Brent. “Having reliable phone and internet are critical to running my businesses.” Being off line doesn’t just mean losing business for Brent. Being offline means losing businesses and never getting it back.

When Wilson’s Greenlight switched on its fiber service in Pinetops, Brent’s world changed. Before Greenlight came to town, Brent’s business was spending about $425 a month for a few phone lines, free long distance, an 800 number, and 10 Mbps/1.5Mbps service, all from Centurylink. He was also spending hours and even days each month trying to get his internet fixed. They were “disdainful” he said. “Every time they would tell me the problem was my equipment. It was always my fault.” But Brent had an IT expert on hire. “Never once was the problem actually my equipment.” He described long waits to reach customer agents whose heavy foreign accents made communication difficult and about the company’s unresponsive office hours. “I was told they could send someone the next afternoon, but I needed the network to work now….”

Brent compares this to his new experience with Greenlight. When Brent’s corporate office changed the location of their backup servers, Greenlight staff were helping him at 6:00 a.m. and at 10:00 p.m. at night, and were on the phone within seconds of his call. “It is a very refreshing situation for me — the consistency of service, and the responsive and respectful customer service by local workers.”

Internet Choice

When Greenlight started inundating the community, Brent’s business started to matter to Centurylink. Within hours of his business phone being ported to Greenlight, a Centurylink representative called him. “He offered to cut my current prices in half and double my internet speed, from 10 to 20 Mbps.” Brent called Greenlight. “I’m a businessman,” he said. “My Centurylink 10 Mbps speed never tested at more than 6Mbps.” Brent chose to keep his Centurylink phone service, but he kept his 25Mbps symmetrical Greenlight internet service as well. “My computer screens don’t freeze up anymore. Greenlight service is flawless. The sheer speed of fiber is amazing and they are available 24 hours a day, I am served by local workers, it is saving me money and I get better service.”

At home, Greenlight brought Brent telephone and internet choice for the first time in more than a decade. “Greenlight saves me $140 a month at home,” he bragged. When Greenlight’s marketing director first arrived at Brent’s house, he learned Brent was being charged twice for his internet service. Brent had an in-law suite attached to his house where his mother used to live. “The Centurylink representative on the phone said I needed to have a second DSL account.” Not with Greenlight.

An odd way of competing

Brent described how he had been a Centurylink residential customer since 1989. “When I called to cancel my home telephone service, the woman just gave me my confirmation number and told me to have a nice day.” No attempt was made to keep Brent’s residential business.  “They did the same thing on my mom’s phone line. She had telephone service since before 1968.” When Brent called to disconnect her line because of her passing, “the person on the other end of the line did not even offer condolences.” He compared that to the human touch that originates from a service company that is community owned: “Greenlight’s installers even cared enough about my welfare to tell me they had discovered a water leak under my house when doing the installation. They told me they would have tried to fix it for me but they did not have the right tools.”

The Intangibles

How do you put a value on the intangibles?  For Brent Wooten, Greenlight fiber service has not only strengthened his ability to do business, but has given the community a whole new sense of hope because now this tiny rural town has access to world-class fiber infrastructure. “As a citizen and Town Commissioner, I am extremely excited to have the opportunity to have access to this service, and super excited about future opportunities that will make available to us. It is an example of hometown people who care about serving you,’ he said, ‘and bringing a higher quality of living to the community.” “It gives a sense of hope for Eastern North Carolina … not just lip service.”

Thanks to Wilson, Tiny Rural Pinetops is A Gigabit City

Pinetops tower

“We just love it!”  That was the response of Pinetops Acting Town Manager, Brenda Harrell, when asked what it is like for her rural residents to now have access to Gigabit internet speeds. In April, Wilson, North Carolina’s community-owned fiber network reached out, passed every home and turned on its fiber to the home service in neighboring rural Pinetops.  Pinetops is located about a 20 minute drive due east from Greenlight’s operations center, but more importantly, it is in another county entirely. Back in February 2015, the FCC preempted a North Carolina state law, known as H129, that prohibited Wilson from serving any residents outside of Wilson County. That preemption was the green light Wilson needed to reach out to its rural neighbors and complete a project that was stopped when H129 became law.

Wilson serves six neighboring counties with its municipal electric services, including Pinetops which is located in Edgecombe County. Turning on internet service in Pinetops was an easy reach for Wilson, where fiber was being deployed as part of an automated meter infrastructure project.

And for Pinetops, bringing fiber services to its residents and small businesses was like snapping it into the 21st century from the late 1980s.  Pinetops is a community with about 600 homes all located within one square mile. It is by all signs rural, surrounded by huge open fields of sweet potatoes, tobacco and soy plants. The average median income is $26,333. The census bureau characterizes the community as having 30% of its residents below the poverty line. According to local officials, prior to Greenlight, the community was desperately underserved. Their choices were unreliable DSL service or dialup. Thanks to Wilson, now Piggly Wiggly even has Greenlight’s fiber speeds.

Piggly Wiggly

The community is excited for its future. After watching a video of how quickly video homework can be uploaded on a Gigabit connection (8 seconds) versus DSL (2 hours and 59 minutes), the new Town Manager, Lorenzo Carmon, was full of ideas. Pinetops, with median homes valued around $78,000 and the option of Gigabit speeds, could offer low cost affordable housing to attract professionals now living in Greenville, a nearby university community full of doctors, students, digital artists and knowledge workers.

“If the private sector is not providing the services, the government has to step in,” said Pinetop’s new Town Manager, Lorenzo Carmon. “The internet is just like electricity. You can’t live without it.”

Greenlight staff and sign at antiques

Why Fast, Affordable, Modern Broadband is Critical for Rural NC

Access to modern broadband is essential for rural economic growth and jobs, for accessing school and college courses no matter where you live, for health care and home values.

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Why Fast Affordable Modern Broadband is Critical for Rural NC

Stanly County Feels NC’s Urban-Rural Broadband Divide

Stanly County NC field

Rural Stanly County is an attractive place. But in terms of broadband, it is between a rock and a hard place. It sits between two soon-to-be Google Gigabit communities, with Charlotte to its west and Raleigh to its east, but as a rural county, it basically knows that Google is never coming their way. County officials worry that without Gigabit broadband, its young people and its businesses will leave for its more attractive Gigabit neighbors and it needs to do something about it. Because H129 sharply limits the authority of local governments, it must be more “creative” than ever before.

Even before Google, County officials realized almost two decades ago the economic development need for more advanced broadband than what was available in the community. Manufacturing companies and just-in-time health care institutions were asking what level of broadband was available for their services and the County’s answer was falling short of those business needs. “We need high speeds here but it is cost prohibitive. The urban areas have the density to justify the private sector capital outlay,” explained Andy Lucas, Stanly County’s Manager. In addition, “current broadband options are priced higher in the County than in its neighboring urban municipalities due to a lack of private sector competition.” The County approached Time Warner Cable and Windstream to ask for their help — could they just upgrade their existing infrastructure — but there was no interest.

With no other choice, the County began looking elsewhere. “Governments build infrastructure, that’s what we do,” noted Lucas. At the time, the County had the authority to partner with other public entities and build its own infrastructure, so the County began conversations with its largest municipality, the City of Albemarle, which operates a municipal electric utility and owns its own poles. The County, for its part, was primarily interested in building a middle mile network and driving down broadband prices, while significantly increasing capacity and options for reaching the internet via an open access network available to everyone, including the private carriers.

And then in 2011, H129 became law. Stanly County’s infrastructure project was put on pause. “It forced us to pause,” said Lucas. “H129 stopped us from doing it…it stalled us…but the local need was there….We have to find a new way to connect.”

Almost five years after passage of H129, the County continues to research any creative options possible. It built, rather than leased, a public safety tower realizing that aerial space like that is good real estate for multiple purposes. Connecting the tower with fiber could provide needed backhaul that would help private carriers and provide leasable connections for a private sector partner. It will help fill in the region’s middle mile gap. “Even Google could use it,” said Lucas.

So in the face of the urban Google threat and an even deeper economic and digital urban-rural divide on the horizon, Stanly County’s Manager pushes forward: “My job is to take care of the citizens and businesses in my community,” Lucas emphasized. “We need open access fiber; the incumbents have fiber but they won’t share. We want connections and will share…it’s critical for getting new economic development…I say let’s build for the future.”

CLIC-NC Blog

CLIC-NC supports the three central pillars of CLIC: That the Internet is essential 21st century infrastructure, that  local communities are the  lifeblood of America, and that local communities must be able to make their own broadband choices.

These principles are particularly critical in North Carolina, where half of the population live in rural areas, because of the deepening urban-rural digital divide. The FCC has noted that 53% of rural households (compared to just 8% of urban households) lack access to the level of broadband service necessary to participate in modern life (25Mbps/3Mbps). North Carolina is quickly reflecting a trend toward Gigabit urban centers and non-Gigabit rural areas—a trend that could have significant economic consequences for the have-nots.

CLIC-NC members are coming together in the belief that everyone in the state should have access to modern broadband. We hope to educate residents and policy-makers, and assemble data useful to a discussion on how we all can move forward together. If you live, work, or even just vacation in North Carolina, please join us. Sign up as a member of CLIC, and we’ll add you to our North Carolina discussion.