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Wilson To Offer Greenlight To Pinetops At No Charge

The town of Pinetops, North Carolina, has a six-month reprieve.

On October 20, the Wilson City Council voted to continue to provide telephone and Internet access to customers outside of Wilson County, which includes Pinetops, for an additional six months at no charge. As we reported earlier, the City Council had been backed into a corner by state law, which would force them to discontinue Wilson’s municipal Greenlight service, or risk losing their exemption entirely.

In August, the Sixth Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the FCC decision to preempt North Carolina’s state law that prevented Greenlight from serving nearby Pinetops. When Hurricane Matthew struck Pinetops, however, the Wilson community could not fathom piling yet another burden - lack of high-quality Internet access - on the struggling rural community.

"We Cannot Imagine..."

After examining the law and reaching out to state leaders, Wilson’s elected officials chose to provide services at no charge while state legislators work to change the current harmful state law. Once again, a community that offers publicly owned connectivity proves that there is more to the venture than profit. From a Wilson press release:

"Our broadband utility has always been about bringing critical infrastructure to people, improving lives and communities,” said Grant Goings, Wilson City Manager. “We cannot imagine being forced to disconnect people and businesses that need our services. We are thankful that, in partnership with our phone service provider, we have identified a way to keep folks connected while Rep. Martin and Sen. Brown work to fix this broken State law."

For more on the situation in Pinetops, read about how high-quality Internet has improved economic development and how the Vick Family Farm, a large local employer, depends on Greenlight for operations. You can also hear from Suzanne Coker Craig, a local elected official and business owner, who described for us how the community quickly came to depend the service and how the state’s draconian law is sending them back in time.

More Time To Make A Change

The situation is not permanent, say Wilson's leaders, but it will give the community of Pinetops a chance to recover from Hurricane Matthew. It will also give Pinetops and Wilson the opportunity to organize local residents and businesses and to work with Sen. Brown and Rep. Martin who will pursue legislative changes in Raleigh.

The community has already started to get organized with a Facebook page and an online petition you can sign to show your support.

Read the rest of the Wilson Press release on the City Council decision here.

Blair Levin In Wilson For Nov. 4 Event On Greenlight

A North Carolina regional tech news publication will host a program on Greenlight, the publicly owned and built fiber optic network of Wilson, North Carolina (pop. 50,000) whose gigabit Internet service has helped transform the community’s economy. 

WRAL TechWire’s next Executive Exchange event titled “Building a gigabit ecosystem” will look at how Wilson built its fiber optic system, "turning the one-time tobacco town into North Carolina’s first Internet ecosystem." The event begins at 8 a.m. Friday, Nov. 4 at the Edna Boykin Cultural Center; broadband expert Blair Levin is scheduled to give the keynote address. Levin is former chief of staff at the Federal Communications Commission.

Levin has also been a guest on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, visiting us for episode #132 to discuss private vs. public ownership and episode #37 to talk about GigU.

Besides Levin’s keynote speech, the TechWire program also will include a live "fireside chat" about Greenlight with Wilson City Manager Grant Goings and panel discussions.

You can find out more about the program and reserve a spot online.

Lakeland, Florida, Takes Small Steps

This spring, Lakeland city officials began contemplating the future of the city’s dark fiber network with an eye toward making a firm decision on whether or not to expand how they use it. Rather than pursue a municipal Internet network, Commissioners recently decided to seek out private sector partners to improve local connectivity.

Too Much For Lakeland?

Kudos to Christopher Guinn of the Ledger for very thorough reporting on the issue. According to his article, the city will release a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a solution that provides Gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second) connectivity to replace the current speeds in Lakeland. Cable serves the community now with maximum speeds of 150 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and about 10 Mbps upload.

In addition to the difficulty of establishing an Internet access utility, City Commissioners appeared intimidated by incumbents:

“I look at us trying to develop and design a fiber-to-the-home (network), the marketing, the technical support and all that, and going up against current providers, and I don’t see it,” Commissioner Don Selvage said.

Pilot Won't Fly

One of the options the Commission considered was a pilot project in a limited area, but that idea didn’t catch on either. Commissioner Justin Troller advocated for the pilot project:

“I think we should have a test area. If that’s something that costs we can say we tried it, we invested in it, it didn’t work and we’re moving on and finding a private partner,” Troller said.

He added: “I’m not against going out and seeing what the private sector will offer us. I’m saying how do we know we can’t do it if we don’t do it?”

While a number of Commissioners agreed that high-quality Internet access is critical for both economic development and the residents’ quality of life, fear of facing off against incumbent Charter overcame any vision of how a municipal network could benefit Lakeland:

“For most of us there is not a philosophical problem with expanding utilities. This is a utility; we can pretty well justify it ... (and) when you look at the revenue possibility down the road to replace the hospital it makes good governmental sense,” [Mayor Howard] Wiggs said.


But incumbent providers are not obligated to play nice with new competition, Wiggs said, and he worried an operation like Charter Communications could severely drop prices and erode the city’s market edge.

Not A Total Loss

While Commissioners chose not to pursue the municipal network plan, they did support a number of items intended to encourage better connectivity in Lakeland:

  • It will submit a bid for supplying internet access to Polk County schools when its current contract expires with the goal of making money from existing assets while reducing the cost of the School District’s services.
  • To address the “digital divide” between rich and poor, Lakeland will consider expanding its free wireless service, SurfLakeland, into neighborhoods. The service is currently available in municipal buildings and in Munn Park.
  • Wiggs recently made a pitch to other municipal leaders in Polk County to join forces in encouraging broadband expansion throughout the county.
  • The city will continue its “dig once” policy for all infrastructure work — that when roads are closed and crews dispatched for underground utility work, conduit that could be used for fiber optics is put in place.
  • The city’s “dark fiber” network, which provides intra-city connections for companies and organizations with multiple facilities, will be more actively marketed. Currently the program generates about $4 million each year.
  • The city will also look at fees and licensing costs to determine if they are discouraging private investment.

The Lakeland Regional Airport will deploy its own fiber infrastructure and will offer Internet access to tenants. The project had been considered as a business pilot and, according to the article, costs are now going to be covered in part with federal and state grants specifically earmarked for airports.

Citizens Want Action

Gigabit Lakeland, the grassroots organization advocating for a municipal network, expressed their dissatisfaction with the decision. Shane Mahoney, one of the group’s leaders, talked to the Ledger:

A partnership with a private provider has not been his favored outcome, Mahoney said, but his group intends to continue pressuring the city toward better internet infrastructure in the city, particularly for residents who do not have quality access because of price or location.

Eugene Encouraged: Expanding Fiber Project

For the past year, Eugene has worked on a pilot project to bring high-quality connectivity to businesses in its downtown core. Now that community leaders and businesses have seen how a publicly owned network can help revitalize the city’s commercial center, they want to expand it.

The Proof Is In The Pilot

The project is a collaboration between the city of Eugene, the Lane Council of Governments (LCOG), and the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB). As we reported last year, each entity contributed to the project. EWEB owns the infrastructure and uses its electrical conduit for fiber-optic cable, reducing the cost of deployment. EWEB also has the expertise to complete the installation, as well as manage and operate the infrastructure. They lease dark fiber to private Internet service providers (ISPs) to encourage competition over the shared public infrastructure. 

The pilot project brought Gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second) connectivity to four buildings in the pilot area. Vacancy rate for those four building is at zero while typical vacancy rate in Eugene is 12 percent. Matt Sayre of the Technology Association of Oregon (TAO) notes that speeds in one of the buildings, the Broadway Commerce Center, increased by 567 250 percent while costs dropped by 60 40 percent. TAO joined the other pilot project partners in 2015.

The Search For Funding

The expanded project will cost approximately $4 million to complete. In June, the City Council approved a measure to make the project eligible for Urban Renewal Funds. Urban Renewal is another label for what is also known as Tax Increment Financing (TIF), which has been used in other places for fiber infrastructure. Bozeman, Montana; Valparaiso, Indiana; and Rockport, Maine, all used Urban Renewal or TIF to help finance their builds.

Eugene provides a helpful explanation for Urban Renewal on their website; they describe it in three steps:

Step 1 - The District is created . The value of ALL the properties inside the district is calculated. This becomes the frozen base amount of property tax for the area.

Step 2 - Redevelopment and Improvements. Public and private investments generate improvements. As property values increase, all new tax revenue above the frozen base amount go to the urban renewal fund to reinvest in the area.

Step 3 - District is retired. Once the City Council is finished investing in the area and the debt of the district has been repaid, the district is retired. Property taxes are distributed among the taxing districts.

Eugene offers more information about Urban Renewal and how the city applies it to help revitalize strugging areas. They also provide this illustration:


The city will also apply for federal Economic Development Assistance Program Investment grant funds from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The grant they pursue requires a 50 percent match which will include Urban Renewal Funds and the value of EWEB’s existing electrical infrastructure. In July, Eugene and its partners submitted a pre-application and the EDA invited them to submit a full application; they hope to obtain approximately $2.1 million.

Residents, Too!

Businesses are not the only ones expected to benefit form the community investment. The expanded project area also includes several multi-dwelling units (MDUs), and the network will help improve the city’s free Wi-Fi:

Anne Fifield with the city of Eugene says three low-income housing projects are in the service area, and she has been in communication with the building managers. One of the goals of Eugene’s broadband plan, she says, is to “bridge the digital divide” and bring internet access to low-income households. An added bonus, she says, is users of the city’s free wifi should eventually see an increase in speeds.

If all goes according to schedule, the project will be completed in late 2017 or early 2018.

"We Just Can't Go Back In Time": Pinetops Calls For Repeal Of State Law

In a September 22nd press release, the community of Pinetops, North Carolina, called out their Governor as they lose access to high-quality Internet access. Read the full statement here:

A state law is forcing the termination of Gigabit Internet service to the small rural town of Pinetops, NC. Last week, members of the Wilson, NC City Council expressed their deep regrets as they voted to approve the city attorney’s recommendation to disconnect Wilson Greenlight services in Pinetops under the North Carolina law commonly known as H129 (S.L. 2011-84).

Wilson was able to bring fiber-to-the-home Gigabit service to our town in April 2016, after the FCC preempted H129 on the grounds that it is anti-competitive and creates barriers to the deployment of advanced telecommunications capacity. Under Governor Pat McCrory, North Carolina challenged that ruling in May, 2015 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and won a reversal last August.

Members of the Pinetops community are particularly distressed because the Gigabit service Wilson was delivering enabled Pinetops to compete with urban areas of North Carolina that get such Gigabit services from Google Fiber, AT&T, and Frontier. In Pinetops, in contrast, other sources of Internet service don’t meet the federal definition of broadband and are insufficient to support small business, home-based telework needs, and homework for students. The Gigabit network enabled the Town to begin developing new economic development plans to attract knowledge workers from nearby Greenville and Rocky Mount. That strategy is now impossible in light of the imminent disconnection of Gigabit services.

Town Commissioner Suzanne Coker-Craig operates a small screen printing business that depends on Wilson Greenlight’s hyper-fast upload speeds.  Commissioner Coker-Craig, with her colleagues in Pinetops government, passed a resolution in early September detailing the devastating economic impact this disconnection will have on their rural community. “H129 is now only hurting North Carolina’s rural communities.” the Commissioner stated. “Our urban areas are getting their Gigabit from the likes of Google. This is not a positive move forward for Eastern North Carolina in any fashion and we must lay the blame and the resolution at the feet of our Governor and state legislators” who are responsible for the anti-Gigabit law.

Pinetops Mayor Burress met last week with Governor McCrory’s staff, and handed them the Town’s letter and a Town resolution asking for repeal of the law that is forcing the Wilson City Council to cease service to Pinetops.  

Commissioner Coker-Craig reported that she has set up a Facebook page ​called “NC Small Towns Need Internet Access,” that directs residents on how to call their legislators and candidates who are running against them. “We are holding the Governor and our state legislature responsible for keeping this law in place, by challenging the FCC and knowing this would be the effect of a win. This law is not about protecting taxpayers, it’s about preventing competitive choice, and now it’s only hurting our rural areas where those monopoly companies could care less about bringing us 21st Century Internet.”

“We just can’t go back in time,” said Coker-Craig. “That does not represent sound social or economic policy,” the Mayor’s letter states.

​The Wilson Times reports that the Town's fiber network will be disconnected by Halloween.​

Designing A Faster Anacortes Starts With NoaNet

Anacortes, Washington, is officially on the road to better connectivity via publicly owned infrastructure. Community leaders voted on September 19th to collaborate with the statewide middle mile network, Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet), to get the project started.

One Piece At A Time

Public Works will be the first to use the fiber backbone to monitor and control its facilities; the community’s current radio-based system is prone to frequent failure. Water and sewer utility funds will pay for the design and construction of this section of the network. Officials estimate the fiber backbone will cost around $3 million.

Turning To Experience

The city approved $175,000 in design fees to nonprofit NoaNet, in part because it is funded and managed by several public utility districts. It brings high-quality Internet access to local government facilities all across the state. NoaNet’s fiber-optic network spans Washington with more than 2,000 miles through metro and rural areas. Its open access model encourages multiple service providers to offer services to more than 2,000 schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community anchor institutions in over 170 communities. The network has served the state for 15 years.

The Anacortes plan would connect its network to the Internet and then to local businesses and homes in a later phase. For now, the city’s priority is the utilities upgrade:

“Every day my guys are telling me we have (communication) failures,” Buckenmeyer said. “A fiber telemetry system is arguably the best system you can have. Our current system is outdated and we need to do something about it.”

Buckenmeyer said the first phase of the network could be finished within 18 months.

An Island Community

Anacortes, home to about 16,000 people, is located on the northern half of Fidalgo Island. Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands surround it on the north; Skagit Valley and Mount Vernon, another community with its own municipal network, are east on the mainland.

Island communities are often plagued by poor connectivity. Often they are hard to reach and large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can't justify the cost to bring high-quality Internet access to places that are not densely populated. Places like Islesboro, Maine, and Doe Bay, which is also in Washington, have taken to finding their own solutions to improving Internet access.

Coverage Of Pinetops: Hear Us On PRX

As part of our coverage on the events in Pinetops, North Carolina, we recently published "Rural Pinetops Disconnected from Internet Thanks to Telecom Monopolies" on PRX. The audio story runs for 3:28.

Readers are familiar with the small rural community that could only get high-quality Internet access from Greenlight, a nearby municipal electric utility. Wilson, the home of Greenlight, was forced to cut off service to Pinetops due to restrictive state laws. We talk a local business owner and community leader, to Suzanne Coker Craig, about the situation. 

Get more details at PRX...

Expect more audio coverage of current events that impact residents, businesses, and local governments as they strive to obtain better connectivity. We encourage you to share this and upcoming stories to help spread the word about the benefits of publicly owned networks and the right for local communities to determine their own broadband destiny.

Cool & Connected in "Little Gig City"

Few communities in Tennessee have next-generation, high-speed connectivity, but the city of Erwin built its own network despite Tennessee’s restrictions. Now through a collaboration of federal and regional agencies, this “Little Gig City” will get assistance showing off their fiber network.

The planning assistance program, called Cool & Connected, will provide direct assistance to Erwin to develop a marketing plan for the fiber network. Cool & Connected looks to promote the Appalachian communities by using connectivity to revitalize small-town neighborhoods and encourage vibrant main streets with economic development.

Federal and Regional Collaboration

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy explained the program in The Chattanoogan

“Cool & Connected will help create vibrant, thriving places to live, work, and play. We’re excited to be working with these local leaders and use broadband service as a creative strategy to improve the environment and public health in Appalachian communities.”  

Three governmental agencies have brought together the Cool & Connected program to provide planning assistance to ten chosen communities in six states near the Appalachian Mountains. Agencies partnering on the initiative are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Services, and the Appalachian Regional Commission through the Partnership for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) initiative.

The “Little Gig City” That Could

Although Erwin is a small community of 6,000 people, it expertly navigated Tennessee’s restrictive municipal networks law. The city built the network incrementally starting in 2014. By leasing out Erwin's excess electrical capacity, officials have been able to build each section without taking on any new debt. The network started serving customers in early 2015.

The scenic community is right on the eastern edge of the state, nestled into the Appalachian Mountains. It may not be the first place that comes to mind for high-speed connectivity, but the Cool & Connected program will encourage young professionals, investors, and visitors to recognize the potential of the "Little Gig City." 

Examining Connectivity Alternatives: Op-Ed In Rochester

When the Rochester Post-Bulletin published Christopher Mitchell’s opinion piece in August, it wasn’t only because he is an expert on municipal networks. Christopher’s interest in all things geeky started in Rochester - he went to Rochester Mayo High School.

A Budding Idea

For the past few years, various elected officials, and member of the community-at-large have expressed dissatisfaction for services offered by incumbent Charter Communications. In addition to poor services, City Council members have faced complaints from constituents about awful customer service. Over the past year, the community began showing that they will not abandon the idea of publicly owned Internet infrastructure.

The city, home to the world-class Mayo Clinic, is a hub of healthcare discovery. As medical technology becomes more intertwined with fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, Rochester’s expensive and lackluster incumbent Internet providers are showing that they just aren’t cutting it.

Local Support And Early Analysis

In June, the Post Bulletin Editorial Board published their support for a review of the options:

We'd encourage the council and Rochester Utilities Board (RPU) board to make every effort to explore the costs and benefits of installing municipal broadband Internet services as a way of ensuring our community stays effectively connected to the world around it.

Considering Rochester's economic dependence on science and technology, having access to the highest speeds possible is crucial to the city's future. Unfortunately, existing services lag behind those being offered in other cities, putting Rochester's businesses and residents at a competitive disadvantage.

Many questions and concerns remain, but finding answers is the best way for the city to make sure it is serving the needs of its constituents to the fullest.

RPU staff consulted experts as it investigated options and presented their estimates to the City Council and the RPU Board in July. They concluded the city would need to invest approximately $53 million in capital to build a fiber-optic network. With the cost of bonding, staff estimates the total cost for a citywide municipal fiber-optic network would be $67 million.

Smart Move


Soon after the city heard RPU staff’s findings, the Post Bulletin published Christopher's piece. He points out that the city makes a smart move in evaluating the options. Businesses and residents are lacking choice and the community’s economic foundation is likely at risk unless connectivity improves:

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 3 out of 4 Americans only have one choice of high-speed Internet provider. If you hear claims that Rochester has many providers, dig deeper. Those statistics are aggregated, which means that while you could have four different providers in a single neighborhood, most homes probably only have access to one or two of them.

Another challenge that Rochester faces is that some nearby communities like St Charles have HBC, a private provider from Winona with an excellent reputation, that is expanding a gigabit fiber-optic network throughout smaller towns in the region. Those communities will increasingly draw high-tech people out of Rochester, trading a commute for far better Internet access.

Christopher points out that there are a number of possibilities and that the city is already ahead because they have an electric utility. He reminds them that they need to consider the future of the community and that the greatest peril comes from inertia:

None of these approaches comes without risk — but then, many communities have found that doing nothing is an even greater risk. Just don't let anyone fool you into thinking the choice is between borrowing $67 million and doing nothing.

Rochester should continue examining its options and decide on the best step forward for it as a whole for the long term. We all want a solution to meet our needs in the near term, but as RPU demonstrates, smart investments can continue benefiting the community decades upon decades later.

Nashville: One Touch Make Ready Moves Forward

On September 6th, the Nashville Metro Council approved a proposed One Touch Make Ready (OTMR) ordinance by a wide margin of 32-7 on a roll call vote (computers were down). This was the second vote to advance the ordinance, designed to streamline deployment of fiber-optic networks in a city looking for better connectivity. Elected officials responded to Nashville residents who flooded their council members’ offices with emails.

The Nashville Metro Council will take up the ordinance one last time; passage could speed up competition in the country music capital. Google Fiber has been pushing for a OTMR, while incumbents AT&T and Comcast look for a non-legislative solution to the problem of the poles while protecting their positions as dominant Internet Service Players (ISPs).

Caught Between A Rock And A Hard Stick

The city of Nashville sits on limestone, a rock that cannot support the trenching and underground work of fiber deployment. The only other option is to use the utility poles. Eighty percent of the poles are owned by the public utility Nashville Electric Service (NES), but incumbent provider AT&T owns the other 20 percent. Google Fiber says it needs to attach fiber to 88,000 poles in Nashville to build its network and about half of those (44,000) need to be prepared to host their wires. 

Pole attachments are highly regulated, but there are still gray areas. Susan Crawford provides an overview of the policies and regulations on BackChannel; she accurately describes how poles can be weapons that guard monopoly position. Currently, each company that has equipment on the poles must send out a separate crew to move only their own equipment. This process can drag on for months. The OTMR ordinance is a deceptively simple solution to this delay. 

Deceptively Simple, But Regulated

At its simplest, OTMR means that one crew moves everything; the ordinance under debate in Nashville is actually more complicated than that. (Read the Nashville OTMR ordinance here.)

If Company A wants to add equipment to the poles, it still has to go through an attachment application process. Once approved, the owner of the pole (let's call them, PoleCo) can then require Company A to use specific contractors. 

If Company A rearranges or alters equipment that belongs to PoleCo or some other company that may have equipment on the pole, then they have to notify the owner of the equipment within 30 days. The company whose equipment has been altered, has another 30 days to conduct a field inspection with PoleCo.  


If the pole requires complex work, then every company already on the pole gets 30 days notice to move their equipment. If those companies do not comply after 30 days, then Company A can perform the complex make-ready work. If there are any errors or problems from Company A's make-ready work, the companies already on the pole can recoup expenses. 

NES explained the basics of the current process and the idea behind OTMR in their newsletter. The public utility did not take a positive or negative position on the ordinance, choosing instead to focus on the final result:

"NES is dedicated and cooperative towards finding a resolution that will accommodate the efficient and effective deployment of broadband services that promote customer choice and competition and improve the lives of the citizens of Nashville."

The Incumbent Providers: Comcast and AT&T

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry has remained neutral on the policy, but has encouraged NES and the tech giants to reach a mutually beneficial solution for the good of the community. If the councilmembers approve the ordinance a final time, it will go to her desk for a signature.

AT&T may be preparing for a lawsuit against Nashville if this is the case. They already have an ongoing legal fight in Louisville, Kentucky, over OTMR. AT&T argues that the ordinance change would conflict with their contracts with NES and the union. The Nashville Metro Council Attorney Mike Jameson analyzed the ordinance for the Council and determined that Nashville clearly has the power to regulate the NES’s utility poles, but perhaps not the privately owned utility poles. 

Comcast, meanwhile, has claimed that the NES’s attachment application process is a source of delay (i.e. that Google Fiber is blaming the wrong process). Comcast is experiencing 90-100 days of processing for their applications to NES. The contractual obligation between Comcast and NES is 45 days to process applications, but Comcast has also “exponentially” exceeded the number of poles that they can apply for in a month under that contract, according to NES official Nick Thompson in the Tennessean.

Meanwhile, Councilmember Anthony Davis, a cosponsor of the OTMR ordinance also told The Tennessean that Google Fiber is not experiencing the permitting delays because it has already worked out a contract with NES. 

The Final Vote

In two weeks, the bill returns for a final vote on September 20, 2016. Councilmember Jeremy Elrod, one of the bill’s cosponsors, described the last vote on September 6, 2016 in The Tennessean:

"This is an extremely big step forward, an extremely big net positive for Nashville, for internet competition. … It increases competition, increases telecom and Internet investment for [us] as a city and our citizens as a whole."

Photo of utility workers courtesy of FEMA through a Creative Commons license.