Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 70 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Will Aycock on Greenlight, the leading service provider in Wilson, North Carolina. Listen to this episode here.
Will Aycock: Our purpose is supporting this community. We are public-minded, and we're here to make this a better place for us all to live.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi there. This is Lisa Gonzalez, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.
Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight Community Broadband visits us this week. Greenlight is located in Wilson, North Carolina, and has been offering fiber-to-the-home services since 2008. Residents appreciate the triple-play from a local community provider. Businesses and government have come to rely on Greenlight's affordable and reliable services. Fortunately, community leaders recognized years ago that a fiber optic network was quickly becoming like any other necessary utility. The network has directly attracted and retained new industry. Likewise, highly skilled talent continued to move to Wilson for a network that outshines those available in most urban areas. Will shares some success stories with us, and emphasized Greenlight's core goal: to improve the quality of life in Wilson. Wilson's another community that continues to reap the rewards that flow from this community-minded approach. Here are Will and Chris.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Chris Mitchell, and I'm here today with Will Aycock, the General Manager of Greenlight in Wilson, North Carolina. Welcome to the show.
Will Aycock: Well, thank you, Chris. I'm pleased to be here.
Chris: I love talking about Wilson. You're actually one of the first municipal networks that I ever visited. It was before Greenlight even started. I was maybe nine months into working on this -- working with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And I was at a conference near Raleigh. And I went up to Greenlight and took a tour of what you were doing, and learned a lot about it. So, I'm really excited to be talking about it now, six years later.
Will: Yeah. It's amazing that that much time has passed.
Chris: Yes, indeed. So, can you start by telling us a little bit about Wilson, and then the region that you're in?
Will: Sure. Wilson is a city of about 50,000 folks, just east of the Triangle in North Carolina -- actually located right along I-95. And our sort of backstory is that we were once the world's greatest tobacco market. And as time has evolved, we've now been able to recruit new businesses. And we've evolved to have manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, banking, among other things. And, of course, we are North Carolina's first gigabit city, which is something we're quite proud of. And I must also mention that we are the home to a very famous folk artist, Vollis Simpson. And we're going to be having a new Whirligig Park. Whirligigs are his particular type of folk art. It's going to be opening up in our downtown in the near future. So that's something else we're very excited about here in our community.
Chris: That's terrific. And just to make sure people are aware, you're part of a city-owned utility. What services does the utility provide in addition to the Internet?
Will: Yes. Well, we are a triple-play provider ourselves -- so, Internet, video, and voice services. We also provide electric and natural gas services. And the city also provides water, storm water, and sanitary sewer service.
Chris: So, let's step back to that period of time before even I came to Wilson for the first time and had some of the best pulled pork I'll probably ever have. And, why did you decide -- or, why did the city decide -- that this would be an important investment?
Will: Right. Well, our council is very interested in infrastructure, and making sure that our community has access to all the critical infrastructure we need to continue to be healthy and grow. And, much like the decision to build a water reservoir -- our Buckhorn Reservoir -- the decision to build a fiber network was similar. It was an asset infrastructure that our leadership felt we needed to maintain the health of the community. And I think that really drove a lot of the decision-making to move forward with this project.
Chris: And the reservoir was -- that was one of the -- that was a very major project, actually. We wrote about that in that in the report that Todd O'Boyle and I did on Wilson. And, you know, could you just give us a 30-second synopsis on how that's helped the city?
Will: Sure, absolutely. The reservoir was completed, I believe, back in '99. And for extended periods of time since then, much of the state of North Carolina has been in drought conditions. And the city of Wilson has been in the fortunate situation of having a plentiful water supply during most all of those -- or, I believe, all of those drought periods. So much so that I believe we were able to help some of the other cities around us, you know, in order to maintain their water supply during those drought periods. So, it's been, really, a wise decision that's benefited our community.
Chris: I appreciate you digging into that, because I think it's important for people to know that a lot of the communities that build these networks already have a history of making smart investments. And it's something that should be both respected and -- we would never encourage a community that is not making good decisions to embark on this very difficult industry. So I always like to point that out. Yeah, I guess the lesson in particular would be that you should have a good local government as a first step.
Will: Right. Yes. Well, we're very blessed by that -- by our leadership here in this community.
Chris: So, once you decided to move forward with the municipal network, the fiber network, what were some of the key steps you had to go through?
Will: Well, you know, certainly the first thing was just the construction of the network, which began in, I believe, late 2006, early 2007. And so, we initially built the backbone, that initially connected initially all the city facilities, and served as the backbone for the eventual community-wide network. Once we had constructed the backbone, we actually had to, you know, roll the network out across the community, beginning to run down every street, pass every address here in our community. Simultaneous to that, obviously, we had to set up all the electronics, all the things and the head-end that provide the signal that goes down the fiber cable. And then, of course, train our staff. And develop the process, procedure, and workforce knowledge required to support such an endeavor as this. So, certainly, a very busy and -- a very busy time and quite a learning experience for all of us, going through all that.
Chris: So, you were the first to do 100 megabits in the state, and I think you said you were the first to do a gig as well. Why don't you tell us a little bit about how that has been noticed. Has it changed who has wanted to live in your town, or do business there?
Will: Well, absolutely. You know, we have seen quite a few people who have moved here, both from other parts of the state and other parts of the country, explicitly because of the fiber optic network and the speeds that are available. Certainly, you know, a high-speed, high-capacity network, from the perspective of DOWNLOADING content, is something that is of interest to many people, and a critical part of modern life. But I think an often-overlooked aspect of it is the UPLOAD speed. You know, how much bandwidth do I have available to share things back out with other folks? And that's been, I think, probably one of the big driving factors. We're seeing people move here, particularly creative-class individuals, folks who may run some type of design business out of their home, graphic artists, special effects people who may be engaged in the movie industry, wanting to be in a location where they have access to these high-bandwidth networks -- in particular, high-bandwidth upload. Because what it does is allow them to share their creative products much more quickly and efficiently with the rest of the world. And it's really important, as we move into sort of this new economy, and a new way of doing business, where it's not just taking a look at what's already out there on the Web, but actually creating new things and sharing them with others.
We've spoken to one customer who does a lot of business with people out in California and up in New York. And, before they moved to Wilson, said that they often felt as though they were the ones holding up the process in collaboration and design. Now that they've moved here, it's actually flipped that around, so that the connectivity available in some of these other major areas is actually slower than what they have here. And has been met with this sort of incredulous question of, where are you? What are you -- how are you able to, you know, transfer this data in this way? So, it's definitely having an impact.
We've even got an employee who moved here from one of the larger communities in the state, because of the network. And they -- this employee had been doing independent web development work before coming to work for us. So, he moved here to take advantage of the network. And one day, he called in to ask a question in our support center. And, after working through the question, said, sort of jokingly, hey, you guys aren't hiring, are you?
Will: And we said, well, perhaps. Let's talk a little bit more about what you know how to do. And, of course, found out what his skills were. And it turned out we did have a position open, and he came in and interviewed, and ended up being the best candidate. So not only are we, you know, bringing folks to town, we've actually benefited from the skills that we're bringing to town within our own organization. Which has been a tremendous asset, I believe.
Chris: One of the questions that I often have from people is how a town that builds its own network can attract the kind of workforce that is necessary to operate the network. And it sounds like, you know, you're so advanced that you're just attracting some of the best and the brightest that are really excited to work for you. You know, has that been the experience?
Will: Yeah, that actually has been our experience. You know, what we have found is that there's no shortage of people who want to be involved in cutting-edge networks, and building and deploying these types of things. You know, the other thing that is really beneficial from that perspective is, our purpose is supporting this community. We are public-minded, and we're here to make this a better place for us all to live. And I think that ethic also is appealing to folks. And that helps us to -- not just to attract people because of the technology but also because of what our purpose is here.
Once our leadership established the fact that broadband -- and next-generation, high-capacity broadband -- was critical infrastructure, you know, they established, really, three missions or goals for this network. And those were to support the economic health of Wilson, enhance the quality of life for our citizens, and improve the delivery of city services. So, help us as a government to be more efficient, and to improve the way we're delivering all the things we deliver to our citizens on a daily basis. And so, those are some of the reasons that we exist.
Chris: Why don't we go into some of the ways that city services have been improved by having this network.
Will: So, you know, one simple example is that we now have a great deal of flexibility, being able to deploy a variety of different types of sensors across our community, to bring back valid information, to help us manage in a more efficient and intelligent fashion. A very easy-to-understand example is simply putting out surveillance cameras, and moving them around quickly. If there are things going on in the community, and we need to be able to observe remotely what's going on in a particular location, because of the communitywide network, it's very easy for us to go out and establish, you know, video cameras, and put them anywhere in the community, bring them back into our centralized call center, where we have people working 24/7, and to help, you know, maybe police or fire or any one of the other utilities to monitor something going on out in the real world.
We also have been able to partner with our public safety folks to create an emergency command trailer, that we can actually pull out anytime, and connect the trailer to the fiber optic network, giving the public safety folks, dealing with some kind of event out in the real world, directly to the fiber backbone, which allows them to have high-bandwidth connectivity to all the tools and resources that they need as they're out, on scene, anywhere in our community, dealing with some type of an event. And that's something that's been very beneficial to our public safety folks.
We're also supporting distance learning for our fire department. You know, you want to keep those fire fighters in the stations, in the districts that they're serving. But they also have a need to continue to do professional development, and have online training. So, because of this high-bandwidth network, they're actually able to have a centralized trainer in one station training the on-duty personnel in the other stations, but still keeping that presence local.
And I should also touch on smart grid. You know, using the fiber network to connect to all the various assets in the field that help to provide our other utility services, and to manage those more effectively and more efficiently.
Chris: And how have the schools -- or the education system in general -- benefited? I seem to recall that you connect not only the schools in town but you've actually expanded your network into the county, to bring that benefit out beyond your immediate city borders.
Will: That's correct. We've been able to build fiber -- a fiber backbone ring -- to interconnect all the school sites in Wilson County. And the school system is using that publicly-owned backbone to, you know, communicate between their primary data center facility and all those campus sites. We also have been able to interconnect our community broadband network with a middle-mile network built by MCNC. And through that interconnection, and that partnership, have been able to bring basically a much lower cost Internet service to the school system, through -- really, MCNC is delivering that service to them, giving them access to essentially whatever bandwidth they need to support their internal operations, while also reducing their operational cost. And then, of course, because all the other campus sites are interconnected with the community network, it allows distribution of that bandwidth from the middle-mile network out to all the campus locations.
Chris: Right. I think a lot of times people think of Internet access as one thing, and maybe the only thing, in telecommunications. But a lot of times, schools need those connections between facilities even more, to do -- they need those connections to be even higher-capacity.
Will: Right. Because, you know, you might be sharing -- and this is true, really, with any organization -- you know, there are certain things that you're doing out there on the Internet, and you need high bandwidth for that. But then, between sites inside of an organization, there's certainly lots of data sharing and transmission of information that goes on. And having access to high-bandwidth networks for those purposes is definitely important.
Chris: These kinds of networks have benefits to so many different parts of the community. And the benefit of being able to lower pressure on school budgets, and providing that high-quality service, now. And then in the future, right? Because presumably you're going to be going from 1-gig circuits to 10-gigs to who-knows-what.
Chris: And you're not going to go and jack those rates through the roof. You're going to be a good partner to them.
Will: Yeah, absolutely.
Chris: The last thing that I wanted to ask you about was, you know, we talked about people moving into town, but the businesses. And I believe, when you and I spoke a year or two ago, you had been connecting some of the key businesses and never even had an outage in four years of that time, I think.
Will: So, some of our major employers were definitely among the very first to be connected to the network and take advantage of the services. And we actually have large commercial customers who have been up and working without outage for more than five years now.
Chris: That's -- that's quite a track record!
Will: It's definitely something we're proud of, and, you know, we work very hard to maintain.
Chris: Well, thank you so much for coming on this show, Will. We really appreciate it.
Will: Well, thank you very much. I've enjoyed it.
Lisa: We have a long list of stories about Wilson on muninetworks.org . We also published a case study on the network in December 2012. If you want to read more about Wilson's struggle as a target of national cable and DSL companies, and the ensuing battle in the state legislature, be sure to download our case study published in January 2013. Both publications are accessible from the Wilson tag on muninetworks.org . Thanks again for listening to the Broadband Bits Podcast. If there are issues related to telecommunications that have your interest, we welcome your suggestions for future shows. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can follow us on Twitter, where our handle is @communitynets . This show was released on October 29th, 2013. Thank you to the group Mudhoney for their song, "The Neutral," licensed using Creative Commons. Thanks for listening.