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.