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Highlands, North Carolina, Learns To Fish With Altitude Community Broadband

Highlands is a small community of less than 1,000 residents located in the Nantahala National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains. Along the western tip of the state, Highlands faces the same problem as many other rural communities - poor connectivity. In order to bring high-quality Internet access to residents and businesses, Highlands has implemented a plan to deploy city-owned Internet network infrastructure.

A Connected Escape Up In The Mountains

Highland entertains a large number of summer tourists who flock to its high altitude to escape summer heat and humidity. Summer visitors can fill the city’s six square miles and surrounding area with up to 20,000 people. The city operates a municipal electric utility along with water, sewer, and garbage pick up. 

To round off the list of offered services and bring better connectivity to the community, Highlands created the Altitude Community Broadband. In January, the Town Board authorized to borrow $40,000 from its General Fund and $210,000 from its Electric Enterprise Fund to deploy and launch the new service. The loan will be repaid with revenue from the new service.

The town has long-term plans to offer both Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) and fixed wireless service to residents and businesses in the downtown area. Fiber is already available in limited areas within Highlands proper; pricing is available on a case-by-case basis. The landscape is rugged, so residents outside of the city may not be able to transition to FTTH, reported a December HighlandsInfo Newspaper, but the fixed wireless access is still an affordable and workable option in a place considered a poor investment by large providers.

Residential options for Altitude Wireless Internet Access are:

  • Basic (Just give me Internet): 4 Megabit per second (Mbps) [download] ... $34.99
  • Better (Supports some streaming video): 10 Mbps [download] ... $39.99
  • Video Streaming (Comes with free Roku): 25 Mbps [download]... $59.99
  • Extreme (Everyone in my home is connected. Comes with free Roku): 50 Mbps [download]... $119.98

Subscribers can also sign up for the $9.99 per month “carefree in home Wi-Fi”, which is a service in which the utility installs and maintains the customers wireless router, insuring all devices connect and function properly.
wireless-icon.jpg
There is also the option to pay an additional $9.99 per month for additional static IP addresses. Installation is free.

Altitude Community Broadband's website also promises something you NEVER get from Comcast, CenturyLink, or any of the other big boys:

Customer speed is determined at time of installation. Customer will not pay for unattainable speeds.

Recently, the Highlander ran an update from Mayor Patrick Taylor who reported that demand for the Wi-Fi service throughout Highlands was so intense, installations had fallen behind. The Town Board decided to hire two more technicians to tackle the long list of people requesting installation.

Locals Can Fix It, If We Let Them

Highlands’s elected officials reflect the self-reliant attitude of this small town who have decided to solve their problem themselves. In a March article to the Highlands News, Mayor Taylor wrote to report that the Appellate Court was considering the case between the FCC and the cities of Wilson and Chattanooga. Taylor wrote:

Overturning the FCC broadband ruling would be a setback for small towns languishing in the digital desert. It is not just a matter of economic development. Upon further study and discussion with our consultants, I now view it more as as a matter of economic and community survival. Either a community will have unlimited broadband capacity or it will wither and dry upon the economic vine.

Nationally some 200 small-town governments are doing exactly what Highlands is doing. State legislators this past session changed the sales tax distribution formula so poor communities could receive more sales tax revenue for economic growth. I have a suggestion: Don’t create laws that obstruct the development of broadband networks in these underserved communities. It is counterproductive to their economic development. Instead, why not allocate funds to bring broadband to these isolated areas? What’s that proverb about ‘give a man a fish’?

Dark Fiber For The Future In Caswell County Schools, NC

Caswell County School Board members recently voted to take a long-term approach to student connectivity in North Carolina.

Ten Years Was A Lifetime Ago

Earlier this month, the issue of Internet access for the schools came before the Board because a lease with the telecommunications company connecting school buildings is about to end. Since the inception of the 10-year agreement, computer and Internet use in schools has skyrocketed; Caswell County Schools now aim to have every child on a computer at school. The district is now served by satellite Internet access to school facilities and in order to supply the speed and reliability they need, the Chief Technology Officer David Useche recommended a fiber-optic network to the Board.

Lease vs. Own

Useche offered two possibilities: 1. lease a lit network, which costs less in the first years of the contract but will not belong to the school district; or 2. pay more for the first five years to have a dark fiber-optic network constructed. The dark fiber network infrastructure will belong to the school district. Caswell County will use E-Rate to help fund the construction of the network, which will result in an overall long-term savings of $35,000. Useche told the Board:

“If we look at the projections for the Lit network, in ten years after E-Rate our cost is going to be $214,255. With the Dark network the cost is $178,729. The difference is a savings of $35,000,” said Useche, who added that the district will use $751,000 in E-rate funds to help build the network. Useche said that the State of North Carolina is using E-rate funds to build networks in some of its rural areas. “If we didn’t have E-Rate funds we could not afford either of these options. We are lucky to have them to provide the services the schools need.”

The Board agreed with Useche’s recommendation to approve the dark fiber option. The agreement will include 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) connectivity for less than $100 per month more than 1 Gbps connectivity. “It’s not like we need ten gigabits right away but pretty soon we will need that much bandwidth,” said Useche.

Mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina: Local Leadership a Must!

High-speed Internet access can bring new industries, reinvigorate rural communities, and provide educational opportunities. We know the importance of high-speed Internet, and no one should be left behind because of the cost of service. In December, 44 city leaders joined together through Next Century Cities to push for reform of a national connectivity program called “Lifeline”- among them was Mayor Jennifer Roberts.

In February on NextCity.org, Mayor Roberts of Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote that it’s the duty of local leaders to advocate for an end to the digital divide. 

Whose eCity?

Charlotte is known for its banking industry and the growing financial technology sector, but Charlotte’s small businesses are pushing innovation in the local economy. Google recognized the community's small business culture when it bestowed an “eCity” award on Charlotte based on the strong online presence of local small enterprise.

While some sectors of the economy prosper, others flounder trying to compete. Without affordable, high-speed Internet access, there’s a major impact on every aspect of a small business. In a previous story, Catharine Rice of CLIC-NC explained how small businesses need high-speed uploads in order to do business and stay competitive. Mayor Roberts described the stark reality of the digital divide:

“The lack of Internet access can also stymie potential small businesses by cutting off the resources needed for research and development as well as hamstringing sales and marketing efforts that are often conducted after hours and on weekends. With customer connectivity being king in the Internet age, far too many small businesses, particularly ones owned by women and minorities, struggle to make the connections necessary for success.”

Access, But No Service

Mayor Roberts highlighted how community leaders must not only empower business leaders of today, but also those of tomorrow. She detailed some of her plan to address the homework gap - students without adequate Internet access trying to get by in increasingly digital learning environments. 

According to WBTV, about 70,000 students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District do not have a computer with Internet service at home. Many families explained that the cost was too expensive. The FCC 2016 Broadband Report noted that everyone in Mecklenburg County (of which Charlotte is the seat) should have access to high-speed Internet options. The report suggests it’s not the lack of Internet access, but lack of affordability, that is holding these children and communities back. 

Local Leaders Must Take the Lead

Mayor Roberts joined the letter to the FCC on modernizing its Lifeline connectivity program for low-income folks, yet she still recognized that national programs can only do so much. City leaders must empower their communities in seeking local solutions to the digital divide.

She touched on Google Fiber coming to Charlotte, but only to emphasize the importance of local leadership:

“We also have to continue pursuing public-private partnerships with companies like Google, which plans to build out fiber connections in Charlotte, and make sure that new offerings don’t just reinforce existing inequities.”

Municipal networks, such as in Salisbury and Wilson, North Carolina, are inherently accountable to their communities, but public-private partnerships can also benefit local communities (for example, see Westminster). As Mayor Roberts noted, however, these partnerships must include local leadership to ensure that these projects serve the whole community.

Mayor Roberts ended her piece on NextCity.org with this charge to other mayors and city councils:

“As municipal leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that the promise of technology reaches all corners of our cities.”

FCC Modernizes Lifeline Program

The FCC seemed to agree, acknowledging the problems of the digital divide that kept low-income folks from reliable Internet access. In a 3-2 vote at the end of March, the FCC approved measures to modernize the Lifeline program to subsidize Internet access for low-income households. In doing so, the FCC recognized the concerns that the many city leaders, including Mayor Roberts, had highlighted in their Next Century Cities letter.

Affordable, high-speed Internet access is crucial for 21st century communities, and, as Mayor Roberts carefully laid out in her NextCity.org piece, local leadership is necessary to advance solutions.

Gigabit Cities Live Conference, Next Tuesday, April 5th

Light Reading is hosting “Gigabit Cities Live” next week.

The conference will take place on Tuesday, April 5th at the Ritz Carlton in Charlotte, North Carolina

It’s an all-day event bringing together city and industry leaders to explore the opportunities of Gigabit networks. The conference will cover topics such as Gigabit technologies, business models, and smart-city applications. 

The Keynote Speakers are: 

  • Gigi Sohn, Counselor to the Chairman, the Federal Communications Commission
  • Jeff Stoval, the Chief Information Officer, the City of Charlotte
  • Robert Howald, VP of Network Architecture, Comcast
  • Michael Slinger, Director of Fiber Cities Team, Google Fiber

For more information or to register, go to the conference’s website

(Note: “Only individuals using qualified work email addresses will be considered for admission”)

Listen to the Lawyers: Audio of Oral Arguments Now Available in TN/NC vs FCC

Attorneys argued before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on March 17th in the case of Tennessee and North Carolina vs the FCC. The attorneys presented their arguments before the court as it considered the FCC's decision to peel back state barriers that prevent local authority to expand munis.

A little over a year ago, the FCC struck down state barriers in Tennessee and North Carolina limiting expansion of publicly own networks. Soon after, both states filed appeals and the cases were combined.

You can listen to the entire oral argument below - a little less than 43 minutes - which includes presentations from both sides and vigorous questions from the Judges.

To review other resources from the case, be sure to check out the other resources, available here, including party and amicus briefs.

TN and NC vs. FCC: Oral Arguments Scheduled for Thursday, March 17th

This Thursday, March 17th, attorneys for the FCC and the states of Tennessee and North Carolina will present arguments to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on a case that could define parameters for publicly owned Internet networks. The proceedings begin at 9 a.m. eastern. Each side has 15 minutes to present.

As we reported a year ago, the FCC ruled that state barriers in Tennessee and North Carolina limiting expansion of publicly own networks are too restrictive and threaten the U.S. goal of expanding ubiquitous access. The FCC overruled the harmful state laws but soon after, both states filed appeals.

The cases were consolidated in the Sixth Circuit and a number of organizations, including ILSR, offered Amicus briefs. We have collected all the briefs and made them available for you here. As most of our readers will recall, the case focused on Chattanooga and Wilson, two communities that know the many benefits of publicly owned networks.

So, when you raise your glass of green beer on Thursday to celebrate St. Paddy's, send some luck to our friends in Wilson, Chattanooga, and the FCC!

Fact Sheet On Rural Connectivity In North Carolina

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice North Carolina chapter (CLIC-NC) and the Community Broadband Networks Team here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) have teamed up to create a new fact sheet: Fast, Affordable, Modern Broadband: Critical for Rural North Carolina.

This fact sheet emphasizes the deepening divide between urban and rural connectivity. The fact sheet can help explain why people who live in the country need services better than DSL or dial-up. This tool helps visualize the bleak situation in rural North Carolina and offers links to resources.

Rural North Carolina is one of the most beautiful places in the country but also one of the most poorly served by big Internet access providers. The gap between urban and rural connectivity is growing wider as large corporate providers choose to concentrate their investments on a small number of urban areas, even though 80 percent of North Carolina's counties are rural.

To add insult to injury, North Carolina is one of the remaining states with barriers on the books that effectively prohibit local communities from making decisioins about fiber infrastructure investment. CLIC-NC and ILSR encourage you to use the fact sheet to help others understand the critical need for local authority.

Download it here, share it, pass it on.

Learn more about the situation in rural North Carolina from Catharine Rice, who spoke with Chris in episode 184 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

North Carolina Coop Fibers Up Rural Counties and More - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 188

North Carolina is increasingly split between those in urban areas, where some private sector providers are investing in next-generation gigabit networks, and rural areas where the big providers have no plans to invest in modern networks. But coming out of Wilkes County, a cooperative ISP called Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks is taking fiber where the big companies won't.

This week, Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks President & CEO Eric Cramer joins us for Community Broadband Bits episode 188 to discuss their approach, history, and plans for keeping rural communities well connected. They offer gigabit fiber, telephone, and cable television services.

Wilkes has already upgraded all of its original 8800 member-owners from copper to fiber, with some help from the broadband stimulus programs to reach the costliest areas. It is now expanding to nearby areas and has overbuilt the population center of the county after CenturyLink continued plugging away with last century solutions.

Coops like Wilkes are especially important as North Carolina's Legislature has created barriers to prevent municipal networks like Wilson (coverage here) from serving their rural neighbors.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

North Carolina Organizes for Local Internet Choice - Community Broadband Bits Episode 184

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) has its first local chapter with the formation of CLIC-NC. Catharine Rice, who is both part of CLIC-NC and the Project Director for CLIC, explains what is happening on episode 184 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

We remind listeners what CLIC is and the goals of CLIC-NC more specifically. We also discuss the interesting comments of NC Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is both challenging the FCC's authority to remove North Carolina's anti-muni law and supportive of removing the law via the state legislature.

Catharine has long been involved in the effort for Local Internet Choice and put up an incredibly strong fight to stop anti-competition bills advanced by Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and others over multiple years in North Carolina. She was the guest on our 5th episode of this show.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Wilson Moves to Expand Greenlight Network to Neighboring Town

Thanks to a new interlocal agreement, the City of Wilson, North Carolina will soon expand its Greenlight community broadband network to the nearby Town of Pinetops. Officials expect to complete the expansion of the gigabit fiber network by April 2016. Pinetops, a town of 1,300, is less than 20 miles from Wilson, population 50,000.

We’re Waiting...

For Brenda Harrell, Pinetops Interim Town Manager, the agreement has been a long time coming after years of frustration over their limited broadband access options.

“Current providers haven’t made significant upgrades to our broadband service through the years,” “They haven’t found us worth the investment. Through this partnership with Greenlight and our neighbors in Wilson, we are able to meet a critical need for our residents.”

As far back as 2010, city leaders in Wilson were in negotiations with Pinetops officials on a proposal to expand the Greenlight network to reach Pinetops. But those negotiations reached an impasse in 2011 when the State of North Carolina passed H129. Since then, officials in Wilson and in surrounding communities have been waiting for a time when Wilson could extend their the Greenlight network footprint.

The new agreement became possible in the wake of the FCC decision in February to overturn North Carolina’s anti-muni HB 129, allowing North Carolina communities to start considering the option to build their own broadband networks or expand on existing networks. While the state has appealed that decision in hopes of preserving the law, this agreement indicates Wilson officials are looking confidently ahead with the expectation that the state’s appeal will fail.

Looking Back, and to the Future

Last November, when the New York Times wrote about the fight in communities around the nation for the right to build and expand community broadband networks, they talked to Gregory Bethea, the now retired town manager of Pinetops, North Carolina:

“If you want to have economic development in a town like this, you’ve got to have fiber,” Bethea told them.

And that’s what this agreement is about: giving Pinetops the local authority necessary to create their own economic opportunities.

In that article the Times also quoted Will Aycock, the General Manager of Wilson’s Greenlight network. At the time, Aycock was already looking beyond the state’s anti-muni law to future expansion:

“We would probably be building tomorrow if the law changed today,” Mr. Aycock said. “We’re not saying that we’re going to build out all of eastern Carolina or even all of our service territory tomorrow. But there are areas where we’d like to go now.”

With this new agreement in place, Aycock is now able to see those plans for expansion come to fruition. Upon reaching the agreement, he said:

“Our commitment to improving the delivery of City services through our smart grid initiatives has made broadband service to Pinetops possible, as the same fiber that supports the smart grid system will be leveraged to deliver next generation broadband.”