Tag Archives: rural broadband

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.”

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.”