Late last night, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation, HB 396, allowing Wilson’s Greenlight to continue providing broadband service to Pinetops and Vick Family Farms. The bill sets additional conditions and also authorizes Greenlight to resume charging those customers for service.
This action somewhat resolves a series of legislative and regulatory decisions that required Greenlight to cease charging for service in these recently expanded areas, beginning last October. Under the new law, Pinetops customers and Vick Family Farms can continue to receive Greenlight service until another provider builds a similar fiber to the home network in the area. At that time, Greenlight would have 30 days to cease service, with customers transitioning to the new provider. In that event, Pinetops would be in the unique position of having two fiber to the home systems to serve a small, rural community. (Pinetops has about 600 households, and a per capita income of $15,763. About 20% of the population live below the poverty line, with about 60% of the residents being African American and 40% Caucasian).
“We appreciate our delegation’s efforts, led by Representative Martin, to eliminate restrictions on Greenlight’s ability to serve customers who requested and desperately need our service,” said Wilson Mayor Bruce Rose. “While this is not the bill we had hoped for, it is a step in the right direction. We hope that in the future our General Assembly will be allowed to focus on expanding rural broadband instead of restricting it.”
House Bill 396: Municipal Broadband Service Area was introduced first in the House, by Representative Susan Martin (R-Wilson) and Representative Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D-Wilson). It was presented on the Senate floor last night by Senator Harry Brown (R-Onslow, Jones), Senate Majority Leader, who represents many rural communities in his district.
Pinetops residents were left with much uncertainty in the past few months about future access to broadband service. Suzanne Coker-Craig and Brent Wooten, both Pinetops Town Commissioners, have worked diligently toward a solution to preserve reliable broadband in the community.
“Although not the solution we expected, we are pleased this bill allows us to continue to leverage Greenlight’s next generation infrastructure as we focus on growing our community,” said Coker-Craig. “Hopefully, no other provider will exercise the option to build redundant infrastructure that our community neither wants nor needs. Pinetops has made it clear that we want the quality and speed of service that only Greenlight can provide.”
Greenlight currently serves more than 200 residential and commercial customers in Pinetops, as well as providing broadband access to community and anchor institutions.
“We are pleased to learn that we will be allowed to continue serving Pinetops and Vick Farms with the best broadband service in our State,” said Greenlight General Manager Will Aycock. “Our focus moving forward is to determine how best to serve these areas under the new legislation.”
The legislation will become effective once Governor Cooper signs it into law, expected early next week.
Under legislation adopted the North Carolina General Assembly’s 2011 session, municipalities like Wilson are barred from offering broadband services except in very limited circumstances. Wilson’s Greenlight system was already built and serving customers when the legislation passed, after years of unsuccessful attempts to partner with a telecom partner to offer broadband in the city. The legislation (heavily lobbied for by the state’s incumbent providers) limits Wilson to operate Greenlight only within Wilson County.
In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that a federal law encouraging the extension of broadband into underserved areas preempted North Carolina’s law. The FCC ruling allowed Wilson to provide broadband to customers within its electric service area, a five-county region.
Wilson then extended Greenlight to Pinetops in Edgecombe County and Vick Farms, a large family farm that employs nearly 300 people just over the Wilson County line in Nash County, pursuant to the FCC ruling, in early 2016. (The critical nature of Wilson’s Greenlight’s next generation internet service to the sustainability of Vicks family farm sweet potato production was featured by the New York Times last year.)
On August 10, 2016, the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC had exceeded its authority in preempting the North Carolina statutes. That ruling put the 2011 NC law back in place. The NC law required Wilson to cease selling Greenlight services to Pinetops and Vick Family Farm by October 2016 or risk having to shut down all of Greenlight.
The Wilson City Council voted in September 2016 to provide limited Greenlight service to customers outside of Wilson County at no charge for up to six months, a measure that prevented disconnection of customers in the town of Pinetops and Vick Family Farms. Without this action, these customers would have been disconnected. The Council made that decision based on a commitment by Rep. Martin and North Carolina Senator Harry Brown to draft and support legislation to change the current law in the 2017 session of the North Carolina General Assembly.
Wilson Greenlight was there for Vick Family Farms in the heart of the sweet potato harvesting season; and it continued to be there for Pinetops even during Hurricane Matthew.