This is episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Joining Christopher Mitchell are Will Aycock and Suzanne Coker Craig. They discuss the situation in Greenlight and Pinetops as well as the importance of connectivity during the recent hurricane. Listen to this episode here.
Suzanne Coker Craig: We just think it's phenomenally important to our town, to really the existence and survival of our town.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. As many of our listeners know, in February 2015, the FCC issued an order that preempted restrictive state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. The FCC's order allowed Greenlight, the municipal network developed by Wilson's electric utility, to expand its Internet access, telephone and video services outside of Wilson County. Pinetops, a small community of about 1300 residents, was connected soon after the FCC ruling and the community, its businesses and residents, finally received the high quality connectivity they needed to step into the 21st century. This last August, the order was reversed by the 6th Circuit for the US Court of Appeals. Wilson had to stop offering service to Pinetops or risk losing the exemption to the state law. In other words, stop serving Pinetops or the state would shut them down completely. In this interview, Chris talks with Will Aycock, Greenlight's General Manager, and later, Suzanne Coker Craig, a Pinetops business owner and town commissioner. Will describes a situation in the area, especially since the onset of Hurricane Matthew, which has hit Pinetops hard, and how Wilson found a way to continue to help its neighbor. Suzanne describes what it was like before the community had high quality services from Greenlight. She also describes how important the services are for the town, and how Greenlight has gone above and beyond to help the people of Pinetops. Now, here's Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight, and Suzanne Coker Craig, Pinetops' Town Commissioner and local business owner.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm starting off today talking with Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight, the municipal fiber network in Wilson, North Carolina. Welcome to the show.
Will Aycock: Thank you, Chris. Happy to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: It's great to have you back. I think a lot of people are aware that you have had a state law in the past that has prohibited you from building your network outside of the county, though you have many neighbors that would like to have it. For a period of time, the FCC preempted that law and made it so that you could expand. What did you do during that period?
Will Aycock: During that period, we offered our service to the residents of the town of Pinetops, North Carolina, over in Edgecombe County. Pinetops is a wholesale power customer of our electric utility, so we actually had fiber all the way into the community and had been helping them with building fiber even before the change in the law that allowed us to provide our broadband services. Since we already had fiber access in the community and we'd actually been working back in 2009 and 10 with the town officials down in Pinetops, to basically do the engineering studies required to go ahead and bring broadband into their community, so all that legwork had been done. When the window of opportunity presented itself, we went ahead and began providing our broadband service to their residents.
Christopher Mitchell: You guys are about 50,000 people. Pinetops is what? 1,800? It's a pretty small city.
Will Aycock: Yes, it's a very small, eastern North Carolina typical town.
Christopher Mitchell: That's very complicated, because the 6th Circuit has reinstated the law. What does that mean for Pinetops?
Will Aycock: In effect, it means that we are no longer allowed to provide telecommunications services for a fee outside of Wilson County, which puts us in the position of potentially having to disconnect or withdraw our broadband services from that community. However, as you may know, we have uncovered at least a temporary solution that hopefully will allow us to find a permanent solution to the issue.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, under the law, you have 30 days basically to stop serving them, although I think it's not really clear when that 30 days started from. In any event, you had scheduled basically the end of October to cut them off, and just last week, or as this is airing the week before, you decided to offer free service because that is allowed under the law. What made the Wilson City Council decide to do that?
Will Aycock: First and foremost, we've been working and trying to uncover essentially any opportunity to avoid withdrawing service, especially right now during this critical time for that community. As you may be aware, we're barely two weeks out from Hurricane Matthew, one of the most devastating hurricanes that's happened to this part of the world since really Floyd back in the late 1990s. Obviously, there was already an effort underway to try to figure out how to not withdraw this critical infrastructure from the residents of Pinetops. They sort of layer on this natural disaster with many of their residents living in emergency shelters, relief organizations coming in to the community, helping to get people back on their feet, all of those operations relying on the broadband network really for the essential communications behind those efforts. That really put an increased amount of weight on trying to find a solution. Our attorneys came to the realization that there was this sort of potential loophole that would allow us to at least temporarily provide broadband and voice service in the community at no charge. Obviously it's not a permanent solution, and it wouldn't be a solution at all if it were not for our private sector partners. We've actually had two of our wholesale providers that we purchase the bandwidth and dial tone from step up and they are actually offering us services for free for a limited period of time to essentially help us to bridge this gap in the community, both to give them opportunity to get back on their feet after this natural disaster, and from a broader sense, hopefully allowing us in partnership with some of our state legislators to find a permanent solution.
Christopher Mitchell: First of all, I just want to say it's really great to hear that there's multiple entities coming together to make sure that Pinetops is not left out. It's also worth noting that you were the only broadband provider in Pinetops. There is no cable. There is DSL provider, but I know a person in Pinetops and he has assured me that no one could get more than 10 megabit service, which is not broadband access and certainly would be very hard to run a business on. You pulling out would be a significant hardship. I'm just curious, if you could just briefly tell us some of the important ways that the broadband service has been essential dealing with this emergency situation.
Will Aycock: Right. One of the first things is simple communication with family members. As these residents were evacuated from their homes and they were moved into this emergency shelter there in the community, they have relative and family and friends across the nation and across the globe who want to know that they're okay. There's been some lack of communications services that we fielded the call basically saying, "Can you guys come down and set up wireless in the shelter, so that these people's devices will work and it will allow them to communicate with their family and friends across the globe, letting them know that they're okay?"
Christopher Mitchell: You noted broadband and telephone services, but there will be no cable services. This is a lifeline type of service really that you're going to be providing while we hope that the North Carolina legislature, at the very least, exempts Pinetops from the law or ideally reconsiders the entire limitation that you have to deal with.
Will Aycock: Right. Certainly our immediately priority is extending these lifeline services during this transition period, hopefully allowing the legislators to, at a minimum, as you said, provide a fix for the residents there in Pinetops and our other customers outside of Wilson County, although our goal certainly is to have all communities in this state have the option to be able to meet their own infrastructure needs as their elected officials deem appropriate.
Christopher Mitchell: I'd just like to ask you one other thing as we finish up, and that's just so people are aware, in the middle of this almost existential crisis for Pinetops with this devastation from the hurricane, you still have them prioritizing, getting down to Raleigh to argue for some relief from the state in the form of this law. I think that, just to me, it shows me how incredibly important this issue is. This isn't just about downloading Netflix. This is about the survival of a community in the modern era.
Will Aycock: Absolutely. It's been very moving to see what's going on in the community and to watch their elected leaders, their mayor and commissioners, trade duty between working at the shelters, helping to serve their citizens there, and then sort of ferrying back and forth almost a relay at Raleigh to meet with various state officials to try to advocate on behalf of their community for long term access to this infrastructure. I think seeing that play out has really highlighted for me and for many others the importance of this infrastructure in these communities.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you very much, Will, both for the call today and also for setting an example of how communities should be helping each other out to make sure that we can all thrive in this country.
Will Aycock: I appreciate it, Chris. It was great talking with you.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, I'm speaking with Suzanne Coker Craig, a town commissioner and small business owner in Pinetops, North Carolina. Welcome to the show.
Suzanne Coker Craig: Thank you very much. I appreciate being here.
Christopher Mitchell: I really appreciate you taking the time. I know that there's a lot going on there. I'm curious, if we could start just with a sense of what it was like to be a small business owner prior to getting the Wilson Internet service in Pinetops.
Suzanne Coker Craig: You kind of make do with what you have, so we were very used to dealing with slow Internet, but we didn't have any options. We made the best of it, but our Internet was pretty slow and unreliable. I spent almost 20 years living in Raleigh in the triangle before I moved back home, so I was used to a little more modern approach and still have lots of friends and family who live in Raleigh. I go up there and realize how much faster real Internet was. Customer service was terrible. You got the feeling that we were the small town dealing with the large company who really didn't care about us at all, and go through all kinds of mazes to get through to a person to talk with them if you had a problem. Generally, you were told the problem must be on your end. It was frustrating and it was slow and it was unreliable.
Christopher Mitchell: When you say unreliable, I think there's a number of people who might think, "Well, yes, my cable Internet cuts out every few months or so." I'm guessing it's significantly more unreliable for you.
Suzanne Coker Craig: Absolutely. There would be periods during every day when more than one of us were online down here at my shop, we'd both be waiting and it would be dragging. Sometimes it would just drop off. When you say people are used to that kind of thing once every couple of months, this would be about once a week that it would just drop off for no reason. It may not be off long, but just enough to interrupt what you were doing and really just got aggravating. There would be times, honestly, with a light rain, that it would just disappear for a few minutes. It was constantly your connection would drop off on your computer, and it would have to be searching for the connection again. It was much more common than I think anyone would really be used to or expect.
Christopher Mitchell: How did things change when Wilson began offering the service, the much faster Internet service?
Suzanne Coker Craig: Oh, my goodness, it was night and day. The difference with the Internet services was it was incredibly fast, and I've actually tested. I will be honest and say that I did not have a chance to hook up my business with Greenlight, I had Greenlight at my house, which is about a block away. I have it in my home but not in my business yet because I was in line to be hooked up when the court ruling came down. I'm kind of on the waiting list for my business, but I had tested my service at home versus my service here at work, and the Internet at home is five times faster. The speed was very noticeable and the service is seamless. I don't think I've had any interruptions other than probably for about 45 minutes during the hurricane a couple weeks ago.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and that's somewhat understandable.
Suzanne Coker Craig: Yes. That I don't complain about. It was noteworthy that's all the time we lost it. It's fast enough that I will routinely leave my business if I have a large file to upload or something like that and will run home and upload files and do things that I need fast, reliable Internet. I will walk a block to my house with my laptop. It's very noticeable, and people here have been incredibly excited about it. Everybody that's gotten it has loved it and has commented on how much more efficient it is, and just really, really excited about it. The fact that they had an option was also noteworthy for all of us here. We don't have to choose the only one. We have an option.
Christopher Mitchell: I have the impression that now that the town has had it and it is possibly about to be taken away that people are fighting harder than they would be if it was just a hypothetical issue, because obviously people could've been upset about this law two and three years ago, but now that they've tasted it, it seems like something's different.
Suzanne Coker Craig: It's entirely different idea because, yes, I guess when you live in a small, rural town, you get used to being left behind in things. I'm sure when the law was passed in 2011, it was one of those, "Well, they wouldn't let us get this anyway, I'm sure." That was five years ago and it wasn't quite as common for areas to have that kind of speed of Internet. Honestly, our economy has gotten even more dependent on good Internet service since then. I think the combination of those things, and yes, when you get it and you realize how good it is and then somebody wants to take it away, yes, our folks are extremely upset about this.
Christopher Mitchell: Just turning to Hurricane Matthew, can you briefly tell us the lasting impact that you've had from the storm?
Suzanne Coker Craig: Our little town of Pinetops, which is about 1300, similar to when Hurricane Floyd came through, we are almost like a little island and I'm not exaggerating this, within a half a mile of our town's borders, just about on all sides, we have significant flooding. People within our community, quite a few people lost their homes. We had others who had significant damage to their homes and were displaced for a couple of weeks at least. There's obviously still a lot of rebuilding going on and a lot of recovery efforts and those kinds of things. That situation also brought about how important it was to have good Internet. One of our churches here set up an impromptu shelter because all of this was pretty unexpected as far as the level of the flooding. One of our local churches set up a shelter and within a couple of hours of them doing that, the folks from Greenlight and Wilson were at the shelter hooking up the fellowship hall, where they had about 100 people housed, for the Wi-Fi connection. They had Wi-Fi already at the church, but it wasn't strong enough to reach the area. The folks from Greenlight hooked it up and we had quite a few people in the shelter who were Hispanic. They immediately were able to get on their phones and let people know, let their families know, that they were okay. That was a tremendous relief to a lot of folks and really made a difference. We saw immediate impact from that. Like I said, the folks from Greenlight had been here, they had serviced us very well, very quickly, and we know that we are a priority with them in the service they have given us, even through this disaster situation. There have been several situations. Especially considering that they may have to take their service away from us, and they have gone above and beyond with service calls and those kinds of things given that situation that it would be easy for them to brush us off and say, "Well, we're going to have to cut them off anyway." But they haven't and that's been a tremendous difference in the attitudes of the folks in this town as well.
Christopher Mitchell: I've met a number of people from Greenlight over the years and I've always been impressed with their character, so I'm very happy to hear that. One of the reasons I wanted to ask you about the hurricane is because I found it really powerful learning from Will that your town's leadership, in the midst of dealing with all this, was still having to go to Raleigh to plead your case to be exempted from the law that's preventing Wilson from expanding. To me, it just showed how seriously this is being taken by your town's leadership.
Suzanne Coker Craig: Absolutely. It's one of those things -- We had a meeting that Friday. The hurricane basically came in late Friday and Saturday. We had a meeting Raleigh. We thought the folks in Raleigh might call it off because of the weather but they didn't, so we got all trooped up there. Everyone, with time to go, went to Raleigh. It's that important for us. Our entire area, really, in eastern North Carolina, the small, rural areas really struggle economically and we're in one of the poorest counties in the state. It is very hard for us to attract business. It's hard for us to attract population here. This Greenlight service really gives us a considerable economic boost, and we just think it's phenomenally important to our town, to really the existence and survival of our town. We think it's that important.
Christopher Mitchell: I want to thank you for taking time out while you're in the middle of these two important issues and running a business and running a town and everything else. I think people are really going to be interested in what you have to say, so thank you for taking the time.
Suzanne Coker Craig: Thank you very much. It's my pleasure, and we will keep fighting.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight, and Suzanne Coker Craig, Pinetops' Town Commissioner and local business owner. We have plenty of coverage of Pinetops, Wilson, and Greenlight at MuniNetworks.org and we'll continue to follow developments there. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Send us your ideas for the show. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stores on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR Podcasts family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. We want to thank the group Mojo Monkeys for their song Bodacious, licensed through Creative Commons, and we want to thank you for listening to episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.