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.