Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 291

This is the transcript for episode 291 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Will Aycock joins the show to discuss the Pay-As-You-Go program in Wilson, North Carolina. Listen to this episode here.

Will Aycock: So it's a Pay-As-You-Go way to consume broadband, making it more like putting gas in the gas tank so if I need one days worth of broadband I can pay to keep that service active. Other times we can just let the account draw down.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 291 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. For about 10 years. The community of Wilson, North Carolina, has been served by its own publicly-owned fiber optic network Greenlight Community Broadband has brought fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to residents and businesses throughout the community of approximately 49,000 people. Along the way, the utility's attracted employers, kept local dollars in the community, and instilled a sense of pride of ownership. Now Greenlight is experimenting with ways to connect residents who might have difficulties connecting to traditional carriers due to credit or income limitations. In this episode, Christopher talks with Will Aycock from Greenlight about their inventive program to get more people online. In the interview, you'll hear Christopher mention the nearby community of Pinetops, where Wilson extended Greenlight service in 2016. After a court decision that reversed an FCC order and a state law that carved out a shaky exception for Pinetops. The tiny community is on the verge of losing Greenlight service. There's a lot of history there and we discuss the situation in episode 226 of the podcast back in November 2016. You can learn more about Wilson, Greenlight, and Pinetops at MuniNetworks.org. Now let's get on with the interview. Here's Christopher with Will Aycock from Wilson, North Carolina.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis where it's probably a lot colder than North Carolina where my guest Will Aycock is the general manager of Greenlight Community Broadband. Welcome back to the show, Will.

Will Aycock: Thanks, Chris. Happy to be here again.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm really excited to talk to you about something that I first learned about from a column that Susan Crawford did, talking about how Wilson has done tremendous things in terms of connecting low-income folks. But let's start with just a quick reminder for folks. Wilson Greenlight Community Broadband, what is it?

Will Aycock: So Greenlight Community Broadband is an operating department of the city of Wilson and we operate our community's Fiber-to-the-Home network. We've been around since 2008 and we provide residential, commercial, institutional services, but broadband as well as video. But with metronet services.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And we're not going to talk today about the situation with Pinetops but people may have seen Do Not Pass Go, a wonderful video, short documentary, about your efforts there to connect some of your neighbors. But that's sort of not the subject today. We're talking more about the urban stuff.

Will Aycock: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: So what we're going to come to a new program or at least new to my knowledge program in which people can pay ahead to connect and we'll talk about why that's important. But I think it's worth starting more generally. Why is it important for the city of Wilson to drive connectivity to folks who might not have the means of, of middle class folks to just go out and connect? Why is it important to bring everyone on the network?

Will Aycock: Well really it's about driving more return on the community's investment in the fiber-optic network. And so the more people were able to connect, in particular, the more people who traditionally not been able to have access, were able to connect the more benefit we'll realize. Of course, the obvious benefit of more revenue being generated by the network itself. And probably the more important benefit which is, you know, connecting folks have been on the wrong side of the digital divide to next generation broadband and enabling them to participate in the modern economy which we are confident helps with workforce development and, generally speaking, helps grow the economy of our community.

Christopher Mitchell: It's interesting that you you phrase it that way. In some ways, I mean, this gets into some common misconceptions, but the community certainly built a network in terms of your utility that's owned by the community, but taxpayers didn't pay for the network. You didn't use any taxpayer dollars?

Will Aycock: No, we did not. No. We were originally funded through COPs or Certificates of Participation. And since then we've been operating on the revenues the network has generated.

Christopher Mitchell: But yet you still have this sense of we're all in it together and it's very much a community driven kind of process.

Will Aycock: Right it's the nature of public infrastructure whether you're talking about you know water, roads, broadband, or electric. The purpose is to serve the community and help the community to prosper.

Christopher Mitchell: So will as we move back into the main reason I wanted to talk to you here. Can you tell me a little bit about this program that Susan Crawford noted in which I think has not gotten enough attention. The ability for people to take service from Greenlight who may have a low or very poor credit rating.

Will Aycock: Right. One of the things that we've identified that you know credit rating can be a barrier to getting access to broadband service. One of the things we wanted to do is to remove that barrier and we found that prepay was an effective way to do it. So essentially someone can come in and establish an account. And as long as they keep a very minimal balance only account and prepay status, they're able to maintain the service. So it's a Pay-As-You-Go way to consume broadband making it more like, you know, thinking about in terms of putting gas in the gas tank so if I need one day's worth of broadband. I can pay to keep that service active, perhaps because my job has a big project and they need to work on. And then importantly other times when maybe you know there are other budgetary priorities, you can just let the account draw down the service becomes inactive, but it's still there. It does nothing to damage their credit. There's no collections and there's no fundamental disconnect process they go through, simply sitting there waiting to be recharged if you will. And again people can pay for as little as they want really, down to even just one day's worth of service. One of the other benefits of the program is that if someone had a pass due balance with us the program could be set up so that back balance can be slowly drawn down over time, each time they make a payment a portion of that payment goes to the past due amount, while continuing to keep service enabled. So again, it provides access and helps people to begin to even potentially help improve their credit over time.

Christopher Mitchell: And how has the response been from the public to the service?

Will Aycock: Well it's certainly something that we've seen grow pretty rapidly. Something that as word of mouth gets around the community and as we begin to market it people are very eager to sign up for the service particularly when they learn that there's no deposit and no credit checks required. They can gain access and then don't have to go through that disconnect reconnect process. That is typical with most service providersIf the account does end up pass due or drawn down.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think it's really worth just dwelling on that for a second because many of us who have had the good fortune not to have significant employment interruption or or other medical challenges that we are unable to deal with. You know it's important to note that in many cities if a person becomes past due on the one provider or the two providers that they're effectively locked out of future communication services. Right?

Will Aycock: Right. And that's one of the things we hope to overcome here in the community by offering this program. People can always have access and just have that account there, in essence, waiting for when they're able to and desire to recharge the account and re-enable their Internet service.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I think many municipal networks find when they're starting is that it's one of the challenges you face in the first several years is this issue of credit. And I'm curious you know for other municipal networks some might be listening and getting ideas. Is this the kind of thing that you need to wait a little bit until you're more mature with your cash flow to be able to do? Because I mean I'm assuming that I want to, I don't know what your numbers are exactly, but I'm guessing that to connect a new home is probably like a thousand dollars. And to do that on a pay ahead plan it might be difficult for a newer network to handle.

Will Aycock: When we first launched one of the things that we realized there was a certain amount of churn in the network where people would connect and disconnect. And of course part of that was due to payment issues and the result of this churn was we had many installed locations across the community that were not active. And so one of the reasons we went out and found this idea of prepay was to remedy that problem wanting to make sure that each installed location has every ability to continue to generate revenue for the network and allow the residents to be connected to broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: That's great. I mean it's actually kind of funny in some ways that a program that seems almost to be more social work is actually driven by good business sense in some way.

Will Aycock: Oh absolutely. One of the priorities is keeping all the assets you have deployed in productive utilization both generating revenue and providing the benefit to the residents. It's pretty basic business principle.

Christopher Mitchell: So if I remember correctly which is seems more and more of a problem lately. It's been about a year since you and I talked about the program where you were installing public housing areas developments with a low cost service. How is that working out.

Will Aycock: It's working well. It continues to be popular. I'd say we have just over half of the residents in our public housing developments opting for the service. So we continue to see lots of adoption there and people enjoying the program benefiting from it. That's a ten dollar a month 50 megabit symmetrical approach right and we actually are providing service to the housing of ready themselves so that 's the bulk contract said they just tell us how many units they want and have active and then they handle the billing to the resident themselves that we have one customer and they manage the relationship on the other side.

Christopher Mitchell: Well I guess that's one lesson learned. Are there any other lessons learned for other folks who might be thinking about doing something like this.

Will Aycock: Well I think just being open to those types of partnerships being able to sit down and explore things with various stakeholders like public housing it's how you derive these novel solutions.

Christopher Mitchell: And one other one that we've written about in the past with the help of Catharine Rice who's no doubt listening to this show, hey Catharine, is the SPOT program which gives kids an opportunity after school to learn some more skills and to have a place to go for some who may not have a better choice.

Will Aycock: Yes. Sharing Positive Outcomes together is what it stands for. And it's essentially a youth oriented program Friday after school care and educational opportunities for children here in our community. We also have held our first hackathon here this year. Coincident with our whirligigs festival in November and interestingly the housing authority is now working with the Kramden Institute to provide training for their residents and once they get through the training with Kramen, they're actually being given devices. So it's really a comprehensive solution in our public housing now.

Christopher Mitchell: So you know I have to say as someone who's gone back and listened to some of the arguments back in the late 2000s when, you know, there were some doubters some people who have since become big fans of the network. This in my mind seems like it's been a bigger success than, than many people even hoped for. You know it strikes me that when this network was built it was a time in which people were hoping to have some more stability in pricing and a better option and that sort of thing. As we're almost 10 years on from when the network launched, do you have any reflections on what's been different than you expected when you took this project on?

Will Aycock: Well you know just seeing all the new ways that we continue to uncover that we can bring value to our organization and to our community by leveraging the network. Clearly when you look at what's on the horizon in terms of the Internet of Things, 5G technologies, the continued push around smart cities and what does that mean for micropolitan communities. The potential of the network is just now beginning to be realized and there's much more to come. And of course, when you look at the clear trend towards over-the-top delivery of video content you can see how this whole entire industry segment has evolved and evolved in such a way that really brings technology closer and closer to our network.

Christopher Mitchell: Well I just have to say I mean I find it inconvenient and many times to refer to Chattanooga and others because people are very familiar with it. But for anyone who's listening to this who, if this is your first introduction to Wilson, I strongly encourage you to take a look. The impact on jobs on, helping the community out, have been tremendous and I can't say enough about what you've done down there. Will, I know that Eastern, Eastern North Carolina is facing some hard economic times but I think you're providing hope to a lot of folks and showing a real path forward. I really hope that that you can, you can continue it and be great if we can see some expansion and whatnot because well I've got to tell you, you've done great job.

Will Aycock: Well thank you very much. Again it's always a pleasure speaking with you.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Will Aycock from Greenlight the municipal fiber network in Wilson North Carolina which has been on the podcast before. Check out episodes 236, 226, 110, and 70. We have transcripts from this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handlers @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts --Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules. podcasts you can access them on Apple podcasts, 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 Arne Huseby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle" licensed through Creative Commons, and we also want to thank you for listening to episode 291 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

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