Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 430

This is the transcript for Episode 430 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Will Aycock, General Manager of Wilson, North Carolina's municipal network, Greenlight, and Rebecca Agner, Communications and Marketing Director for the city of Wilson. They discuss how the network works to connect economically vulnerable households and continues to bring value to the community. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript.

Rebecca Agner: That foundational time was spent, making sure that we had the best network that we could have. That exceptional customer service that they had a chance to make all of that part of the culture of Greenlight. And that really shines through with everything that's being done.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to episode 430 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today on the podcast Christopher welcomes back Will Aycock, General Manager of Wilson, North Carolina's municipal network, Greenlight and Rebecca Agner, Communications and Marketing Director for the city of Wilson. It's been more than two and a half years since we spoken with them and both the city and the network have been busy. Continuing to provide fast, affordable internet to residents while also undertaking a host of projects to strengthen the community and bridge the digital divide. Christopher talks with the duo about what it took for the city to be named one of the 10 best small towns in the country to start a business in 2019, how Greenlight is spearheading efforts to make sure the county's most economically vulnerable residents have options to connect in 2020 and the network's future plans as it approaches paying off its debts in the near future. Now here's Christopher talking with Will and Rebecca.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Today I'm bringing back one of my favorite guests of all time, Will Aycock the General Manager of Greenlight Community Broadband in Wilson, North Carolina. Welcome back Will.

Will Aycock: Thank you Chris. You're too kind but I will say, "This is one of my very favorite shows to participate in as well."

Christopher Mitchell: You always have some of the most interesting things to say. You're doing some of the most interesting work to make sure that everyone in your community can benefit from the network. And so, I want to check in on some of those things, some of the things that we learned a little bit about the last time we talked to you about two and a half years ago, and then update folks on the rest. So the first thing is, do you just want to give us the 90 second sketch for people who have recently joined the show and aren't familiar with Eastern North Carolina. What's Wilson like and what have you been up to?

2:22

Will Aycock: So Wilson, a small city or a large town, depending on how you like to look at it in Eastern North Carolina. Historically we've been known as a market center for agriculture in particular, the bright leaf tobacco market. We have a long and really proud history of being the world's largest tobacco market. And we're also a community that has often believed in investing in ourselves and public infrastructure as a means to help ensure prosperity for not just the city but also for the region. As electric, natural gas, water, and broadband provider, we're see ourselves as a regional service provider trying to help things continue to grow.

Christopher Mitchell: And your service territory for electricity stretches well beyond Wilson County, right?

Will Aycock: Right. So we have some service territory in each of the surrounding six counties for that electric distribution system.

Christopher Mitchell: And you've been in business doing a fiber broadband network under the name Greenlight for more than 10 years now.

Will Aycock: Indeed, it's hard to believe that we are probably getting closer to 15 than 10. Things are moving quickly.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, if I was to move to Wilson and I wanted to take the most economically priced broadband package, what would I be looking at?

Will Aycock: So you would be looking at a $34, 50 Meg symmetrical entry-level point. The next point up from there as a $54, 300 Meg symmetrical service.

Christopher Mitchell: And that's even if I didn't take any other telephone or cable or anything.

Will Aycock: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, that's remarkable. You know we did this study a few years ago of what had happened in Tennessee. Where there's several citywide municipal networks, and we found that half of them had never raised their rates for broadband. So basically how you started almost 15 years ago is still how you price it.

Will Aycock: Yup. Absolutely it sure is. And you know we've only recently moved that second tier to 300 Meg. It was 75 years ago, but we have now just moved everything up. So we're continuing to keep the rates the same and then try to provide more service to the subscribers.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the first things that really put you on the map is going above and beyond for low income families was a program that you work out with the public housing authority in town. In which you work with them to make sure people have a high quality $10 a month option. Have people have been taking advantage of that?

4:53

Will Aycock: Yes, absolutely. We continue to see strong adoption in the public housing properties and we're averaging several hundred active connections under that program at any given time.

Christopher Mitchell: And I think in one of the panels I saw you on, I think you said, "It's, usually on the order of two thirds of the people take advantage of it." Is that right?

Will Aycock: Roughly correct. Yup. You know it's sort of attrition coming and going, but that's a pretty accurate statistic every time.

Christopher Mitchell: And do you have a sense that it's made a difference in people's lives who are in public housing?

Will Aycock: I know that it has particularly over the past six to eight months since we've been doing with this pandemic. Because with remote learning going on, and with those who able to having to work from home, and even just trying to access basic services these days. When you look at a customer service facility that's now shut down to walk-in traffic, right? How do you function in today's world without that broad banking activities? Yeah one of the things that we've always felt like, was the having access to this broadband infrastructure was really important to people. And times gone by before the pandemic. As soon as that top line of being able to access opportunity, translate business online and so on and so forth sort of the upside benefit of broadband. But what we're now seeing is really the opposite of that, right?

Will Aycock: Which is the minimum required to function in society, right? This isn't necessarily now, just about forwarding opportunity. This is about maintaining relevance. Because you can't function these days very effectively without broadband. And so that, it's just been a tremendous eye-opener I think for us in the community, for us as a service provider. We have and continue to have grand desires for how this is leveraged to bring value to people's lives, but it's so much more fundamental than just something to get ahead with, right? Is now truly about not falling behind.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Yeah. I'm very worried about the education disparities we'll see coming out of this year for the people who are in districts with remote only education. But as we've seen, I think there's been a lot of kids who have been struggling to try to compete with kids that have good connections at home. And Wilson I'm glad that you're working so hard to make sure everyone has that opportunity. So Will, that's the public housing angle. But when we talked to you last, you were doing something that, as far as I know is path-breaking in terms of creating an option so that families with poor credit would be able to pay ahead and get their service. And also use that same system to be able to pay down past debts, rather than you telling families that you could not access the internet until they'd paid down past debts. You developed a program to enable them to work it off over time and make sure they were connected. So can you tell us a little bit about that program and what you've learned about it as you've operated it?

7:58

Will Aycock: Absolutely. So the program is our Prepay Program, which essentially allows the customer to come in and charge an account with a minimum amount, let's say $25. And then that amount is drawn down over time. So you, as they utilize the service on a daily basis, it deducts from that balance, and then whenever it gets slowed, the customer can simply recharge the balance through a variety of channels. And what that allows them to do is to have service with no deposits, no credit checks, no business rule barriers to being able to participate in the program.

Will Aycock: And we have found it to be tremendously popular. And where you see that most of all is in our overall adoption rates across the community. In some of our lower income areas, pre prepay, we would have maybe seven, eight, 9% adoption rate in some of those areas. And now we're seeing much more along the order of 25 to 30% penetration in most of those same neighborhoods. So still a long ways to go. But when you look at that change right, from less than 10% to nearly 30% adoption, clearly having a significant impact in the community. And in terms of, of getting people access that they need.

Christopher Mitchell: Are people commonly using it to connect all the time? Or are they, is it a few weeks here, a few weeks there?

Will Aycock: Yeah, I would say it's a mixture. We know for sure there are people who are sort of using it as needed. We're very fortunate in that the way the system works, it is a self administering. These things happen in the background through technology in terms of recharging, disconnecting account, reconnecting account, all those things happening. So even if I pull a report right now from the last week, I'd be willing to bet that you would see a couple of 100 orders where people have reconnected and the end disconnected, and they're just kind of managing the service themselves. So that, happens without a doubt.

Christopher Mitchell: And one of the things that I think you must get a benefit from is the ability to collect cash because of your other utilities. You have this long approach, but do you have a sense of how many of the people using that program use cash as opposed to credit cards and then more folks like us that have a regular job would be using?

10:27

Will Aycock: Now that I don't have. I'm sorry Chris I don't have insight into the cash versus other methods of payment.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. But you do collect cash then I'm sure as part of the utility-

Will Aycock: Absolutely yes.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm sure you have some of those folks that come up every month, they know the customer service reps, are catching up on the gossip and that sort of thing.

Will Aycock: Yeah. There's no question about that. And it's been particularly challenging because of the pandemic again. We have opened up as many drive-through lanes as we possibly can and you will see cars stacked up out the parking lot and into the street as people come through for that reason to make those payments.

Christopher Mitchell: And now in addition to all of that, then you have yet another Lifeline type program I think, right? Tell me about that.

Will Aycock: Right. So initially we added the Lifeline program specifically to be responsive to the executive order here in the state, which required that we not disconnect people. Well, actually required not disconnecting utilities, but we desired to not disconnect broadband either. So we essentially put people into this Lifeline program. Which is a minimum connection, but one that we would not disconnect during the worst parts of the pandemic for non-payment. And we have found that to actually be popular amongst certain sections of the customer base. And so we now turn that into a permanent service offering that we call Lifeline Service and it is similar to all our other services is something that you can upgrade to or downgrade to, and then upgrade to as needed.

Will Aycock: So one of the things that we're finding is maybe some of the older customers that we have that want to maintain connectivity, but their own fixed income. And they don't actually have a need for the remote learning and things that we're doing, but they can't be disconnected, right? And so we've really seen that service become popular in that demographic. And what I think is interesting to look at the PrePay, the Housing Authority, the Lifeline, each of these various services has a different niche, right? And so we're trying to approach the market with things that are appropriate for different segments of the market, depending on where people are.

12:44

Christopher Mitchell: And so how exactly does the Lifeline work? What's the cost and the speed.

Will Aycock: So it's $10 per month. What the service is, it is designed to provide a certain level of service. Which is essentially being able to conduct a single video chat like a Zoom or a Webex. So we try to make sure that we're managing that service, somebody at home and needs to participate in remote meetings or classrooms that it will always be sufficient for that. And so we are managing it based on customer feedback and what we're seeing across the network to ensure that Lifeline service provides that basic level of connectivity as a minimum within the community.

Christopher Mitchell: So, we talk about the folks who aren't in the public housing the roughly a third of folks. There's a number of people who are still not connecting even at $10 a month for this Lifeline connection. Do you have a sense of what your total market could be? Is it changing? Do you have a sense? it seems like there's some number of people, no matter how low you get the price are not going to be interested in it.

Will Aycock: Right. So yeah, we're sitting here about 45% penetration of the market passings, right? So the numbers of addresses we know that are active because of utility account data. I would suggest that we are probably somewhere in the 60 to 70% actual opportunity penetration. That's a real hard number to know though. Because how do you define what the real market opportunity is? And you know, that that's very much me wetting my finger and sticking it up in the air. But yeah, I think something along those lines is where we actually are right now. And I do think that we're seeing growth in people understanding the importance of broadband. Yeah. Again, going back to the world we're in right now, if you're afraid to go to the grocery store, if you want to order the groceries, right? To be picked up or brought to you, you must have broadband. And so it's just so much more fundamental now. Well, I don't Know that it's truly more fundamental. We are now seeing-

Christopher Mitchell: Oh it is.

Will Aycock: How fundamentally it is.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah especially I just, before talking to you I was on hold with my bank for awhile and I sure liked doing things online more than waiting in hold. And the phone services are overwhelmed as people are trying to figure out how to cope with this. So yeah.

15:08

Will Aycock: And every bit of this comes down to what we at first viewed, some said, "Oh this is entertainment," and then luxury and now you really see a notice. This is fundamental with central infrastructure.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to bring in to join us Rebecca Agner, the Director of Communications and Marketing for the city of Wilson. Welcome to the show, Rebecca.

Rebecca Agner: Thanks Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: So I want to talk a little bit about some of the economic development stuff that we've seen in Wilson and congratulate you because last year you were named one of the top 10 places in the United States to start a business. I believe it was, by a WalletHub. Recognizing great work that you all have been doing, creating a good atmosphere for business. Just tell us a little bit about that please.

Rebecca Agner: So a lot of the credit for that distinction goes certainly to Wilson County economic development. They consistently work extremely hard to bring more industry here and to do everything they can to bring jobs and more investment. And from what we hear, even throughout the pandemic, they've done very well. I think we have some announcements that could be coming by the end of the year. We've really built a strong pharmaceutical sector here, and those plans are pretty much constantly expanding. So I think a lot of that distinction goes towards the efforts that they have made for sure. And then I would also say that the city infrastructure plays a huge part of that. The fact that we have Greenlight as our community broadband and also with our electric rates that have significantly decreased, which you don't hear many things that are significantly decreasing over time, but in the last five years, we've seen quite a decrease. And I think that helped with our score. When you looked at the affordability to start a business here.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I recall that you were part of a consortium that had some cost overruns for an electric nuclear plant, I believe. And as that gets retired, you're able to re recover your rates to what they really are for your own sort of utility.

17:22

Rebecca Agner: Yeah. So that we just had five years of right now, we're going through the five-year anniversary of that happening and that historic asset sale that enabled us to re to decrease rates by about 28% on average. Wilson Energy has continued to have an innovative approach to operations, to daily operations. And we were just in the news again this week for a new battery storage project that we're working to try to lower our costs even more. And so assuming that that all plays out well, then I would expect our score to go up in that business vulnerability over the year.

Will Aycock: And when you look at the community and what we do to encourage innovation and to help support the economy, I think the VIA project shows that we were the first community of our size in the nation.

Rebecca Agner: Yes. I think innovation has been constantly a focus, but it's really been a good opportunity for us in 2020. Because there's nothing like kind of forced innovation whenever you must make changes. And we have a lot of examples of that, that we'll be showcasing later on in the year. But again, through this pandemic, we were able to launch our new ride sharing service that replaces our transit service. We were the smallest non-university community in North Carolina to operate a public transit service. And those were done with big buses and that during a pandemic and during distancing and cleaning requirements is very difficult. Also with, as Will said before people are scared to go places then certainly they don't want to be on a cramped bus. We already had this in the works for several years, and we were able through a partnership with VIA, to debut Ride on September 1st, 2020. Which is a much smaller scale.

Rebecca Agner: So we're able to now cover the entire city. It's all app and phone based, but it's a ride sharing service that uses much smile passenger vehicles to transport people. And we have had day over day, record growth in the three weeks that it's been up and running. It's been really great to see the utilization, and we expect that over time that public transit will appeal to all Wilsonian and that people that depend on it for their daily life, that expands. Because if we looked at a typical ride on the Legacy system, I think the average ride time was 45 minutes and often required a connection.

Rebecca Agner: Everybody had to go to one central place and then go out from there. This takes you from exactly where you need to get a point A to point B may pick up somebody on the way, but it's cut down to about a third, the average time in transit. So that when you think about that, that lets people be able to have jobs that maybe they weren't on the bus route on this fixed route system that weren't available before. We are thrilled to be able to have things like that happen. Even in the midst of the challenges of 2020 has brought us.

20:34

Will Aycock: I think whether you're talking about County Economic Development, Greenlight, ride, broadly any of these things and we try to be responsive, right? So when you look at why we've been rated, very fortunate to be right as a very good place to start a business and to do business, I believe it's because we try to be responsive as a community. We see where there are opportunities and needs, and we try to fill that gap, meet the needs.

Christopher Mitchell: Are you collecting stories of people who are moving to town because of the network, whether for business or for family reasons and picking Wilson or in the area because of the fiber network.

Will Aycock: So yes. We hear those stories quite frequently. And interestingly, we have been approached by now a major national builder who is interested in doing a project here in the community that hopefully will be announced within the next couple of weeks. And when they came to town, the first people they came to talk to was Greenlight because they wanted to have fiber in this development that they're looking and doing. And yes, we are seeing the individual stories, and now we've got a national builder. Who it appears in part is wanting to come to business in our community because of the broadband network.

Christopher Mitchell: Rebecca, do you have any advice for cities that are new to this may have built a network like a Wilson's Greenlight, but haven't yet figured out how to market it?

Rebecca Agner: For us, I think either having the superior network has been the key driver and the customer service. The stories, if you just look on our Facebook page, the Greenlight Facebook page, and see the stories that people share willingly and without prompting of the customer service and the responsiveness. Our employees are part of the community. I think that's incredibly important. I was fortunate to come in after Greenlight had already been around for almost a decade. I think I came in at about seven or eight years. That foundational time was spent making sure that we had the best network, that we could have that exceptional customer service, that they had a chance to make all of that part of the culture of Greenlight. And that really shines through with everything that's being done. And so then I get to come in, when all this great work has already been done and I just get to help sell it.

22:53

Rebecca Agner: For us, I think one of the key changes that we made in the next evolution of what Greenlight could be was creating Gig East and creating a place for innovation and entrepreneurship within Wilson. There're great entrepreneurs here that are doing work, but the fact that we bring them together as part of a central mission, that was the part that was not present in the community before. And also in opening into 2020 is our Gig East exchange, which is our coworking space. We have space leased already. We've had to make some changes for social distancing requirements and for the number of people that we can allow into the facility, but the Gig East programming has remained strong and will be even more supportive for entrepreneurs.

Rebecca Agner: So I think that will be when we talk to you eight years from now, we'll tell you whatever our next evolution is, but we'll say that Gig East was that second foundation that went on top of a great network, all the infrastructure that you need, the right people in place and really exceptional customer service, and then figuring out what your community needs and building on top of that, which we've done with Gig East, and it's still in its infancy.

Will Aycock: Then I would also say that you should go and hire a professional communicator with vision such as Rebecca and not try to rely on technologists and business managers to figure out your development and communication strategy. Because I think that synergy of having a dedicated team of professionals that know what they're doing to build the story and to lead in that way has made all the difference in our community. And Chris, I would hazard a guess you've seen that difference-

Christopher Mitchell: Yes.

Will Aycock: Every 15 years that we've been working together.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. The engineers I think, are trained to look for their own blind spots, but there's a lot when it comes to marketing, they don't know that they don't know. So-

Will Aycock: That is well put.

Christopher Mitchell: Let me ask you about the of the wireless deal you have with Republic. Just a quick thumbnail sketch of that, if you don't mind Will.

25:04

Will Aycock: Sure. So Republic Wireless is a local partner who offers a low cost again in the neighborhood of $10 brand price point cellular service for citizens. And yeah, it was just an opportunity for us to leverage our network, to bring new offerings into the community, more options. And in particular in Greenlight customers do get a favorable rate from this partnership with Republic Wireless. So again, it's just another example of trying to bring to bear technology to be useful in the lives of our citizens.

Christopher Mitchell: And do you have a lot of Wi-Fi access points in the area then that they would be using when they were using? For people who aren't aware it was one of the early companies that recognize that if you could do a lot of calling on Wi-Fi, it was effectively free. And then if you're not on Wi-Fi, then you can roll over to like a Verizon network or something like that.

Will Aycock: So yes. We have strong wireless and the pandemic has made it stronger. We've deployed some of the neighborhood of 55 new access points in partnership with our school system, just sort of identifying pockets within the community that needed access and funding places. You know, these days throughout our downtown central business district and in most public gathering spots you're going to have strong Wi-Fi that's deployed on top of the Greenlight network. And similarly, we also have that wireless available in the public housing authority areas and so on. So we're constantly expanding that really to provide a seamless experience for the citizen that has all those services.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I have one final question as we're already stretching the time budget. And that's, if you can just give us a sense of your budget situation. I'm always curious how it's going in terms of paying off the debt of the network. And one of the things that I'll put words in your mouth, I think we can agree on is that it's frustrating when people will make allegations that municipal networks are not paying off their debt or will take a hundred years for them to pay off your debt. What is the reality and Wilson?

27:12

Will Aycock: The reality Wilson first and foremost, is that this argument about whether or not community-driven broadband networks are going to make a lot of money as a false premise to begin with. Because we're not that that's not the point. The point is they can be managed in a fiscally responsible way, right? So nobody's saying it's not difficult. Nobody's saying that it's some type of a cash cow for the community or a panacea for anything. It's just one more infrastructure investment that's necessary. So yeah, always important to acknowledge and recognize sort of the false premise around that whole part of the discussion, but also just in terms of practically speaking, where we are, we had two series of bonds basically, or certificates of participation. 2007 is the first one next fiscal year 2022, that series will be completely retired thereafter. The second 2008 series of cops will be retired in 2025. And so that is a little less than 20 years after we launched the network that we will have retired the certificates of participation on the network.

Christopher Mitchell: And you're going to have a big worthy Gig party at that point.

Will Aycock: Oh, is that a really good party, but we'll have a big one that day.

Christopher Mitchell: That's excellent. And let me ask, is there any, I feel like that's one of the natural points that you focus on for network success. Is there, are there any other achievements that you're looking for? Like any goals you're setting for the next five or 10 years? This is a question totally out of the blue that just popped into my head. So [crosstalk 00:28:48]

Will Aycock: Yeah, the big goal for us is to continue helping to guide the community through a digital transformation, right? So we're talking about all this infrastructure and technology we're deploying, but there are whole programs around security and digital literacy and what does it mean that I have all these IoT devices in my home and in my business now. So the real metric for us is going to be how safely and effectively does the community utilize the technology we're bringing to bear and that's going to be a huge focus over the next several years.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well thank you Will and thank you Rebecca for jumping in on the questions about the economic development and the communications. It's great to talk to both.

Rebecca Agner: Well absolutely.

Will Aycock: Always a pleasure.

29:36

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Will Aycock and Rebecca Agner. We have transcripts for 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 @community nets, follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting For Community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives. If you subscribe to our monthly newsletter@ilsr.org, while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 430, the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.

Tags: