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Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 224

This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. ILSR research associate and writer, H.R. Trostle, joins the show to discuss the recent report on North Carolina's connectivity and the importance of cooperatives. Listen to this episode here.

H.R. Trostle: The telephone cooperative are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Recently, we released a report focusing on the availability of high-quality Internet access in North Carolina. H.R. Trostle, a research associate at the Institute and one of our authors on, analyzed data from several different sources and she's talking to Chris this week to discuss her conclusions. She and Chris, who co-authored the report with her, discovered that municipal networks and cooperatives have an important role to play in North Carolina. Take a few minutes to check out the report and check out the detailed maps that show the results of their analysis. The report is titled North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It's available at and Now here are Chris and H.R. Trostle, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, discussing in detail their recent report and their findings on Internet access in North Carolina.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broad Bits Podcast. Coming to you live today from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance offices in Minneapolis, with H.R. Trostle, the co-author of our new report on North Carolina. Welcome to the show.

H.R. Trostle: Thanks Chris, it's great to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Hannah.

H.R. Trostle: Hi.

Christopher Mitchell: I thought we would start with a broad overview of what did the report cover.

H.R. Trostle: The report covered everything from electric coops to municipalities and included telephone coops. It involved a lot of digging through a lot of FCC data.

Christopher Mitchell: What kind of data? What were we looking for?

H.R. Trostle: I looked at the FCC form 477, which is deployment data. It also includes maximum advertised upload speeds and download speeds, but it doesn't include things like pricing information.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. This has been long one of the issues that we have found infuriating is that the carriers can just say what they're offering. Maybe that's true, maybe it's not. To some extent, it's very difficult for CenturyLink to know what it can offer in rural areas, because the DSL is so poor. It varies from house to house, but they never have to disclose what they're charging for it, which really makes it difficult to make good policy around this.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, they also don't differentiate between different tiers, so it literally only tells me the maximum advertised. They may advertise that they offer 15-20 megabits a second, when in actuality you get maybe two.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. We know that that situation in Pinetops, just outside of Wilson, which we'll cover here in a few minutes, but I think one of the things that I found most interesting was that basic broadband access, which is overstated. You know, actually, why don't you just give us the numbers and facts that we're going to use from 477 data, from the FCC. Is that super accurate?

H.R. Trostle: It's not the greatest amount of accuracy. I could wish for more.

Christopher Mitchell: Is it randomly inaccurate, or is consistently inaccurate in one direction?

H.R. Trostle: It's mostly inaccurate in rural areas, because the census blocks are so large. The way the FCC's 477 is set up is each provider notes what they offer by census block. Rural areas tend to have very giant census blocks, with very few people.

Christopher Mitchell: That means that if a few people have access, maybe it's like the census block in which you have the edge of a town and you have a few people who have access, but the rest of the census block has no access. The form 477 data would suggest that everyone has access on that block.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly, even if two people have access, all twenty some people in the census block are considered as having access.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's imagine one other thing, which is to say that you have a census block in which, in the North side you have one provider's that's offering a service. In the South side, you have a different provider that's offering a service. In the middle, nobody can get anything, but we can't tell. As far as we know, I think about how that data is often interpreted. People might think there is competition in universal service in that block.

H.R. Trostle: It's actually pretty great. The FCC's form 477 specifically says that you should not try to use it to generate competition data, but everyone tries to use it to generate competition data for exactly that problem.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, but we can have a sense of at least -- The report, and the numbers in the report are a best case scenario.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, absolute best case.

Christopher Mitchell: I find it interesting, I actually thought that North Carolina has better basic broadband access than I expected. What's basic broadband access and who has access to it there?

H.R. Trostle: Basic broadband access is the FCC definition of 25 megabytes per second download and 3 megabytes per second upload speed.

Christopher Mitchell: Advertised.

H.R. Trostle: Just advertised, obviously. You might not actually get that. In fact, some areas, you can get 20 megabytes per second as a normal, affordable speed tier. Then they also offer 100 megabytes per second at some absurd price. You can't actually get broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: Because even though you could get a decent connection, maybe from a coop, I think that's what you're talking about here. You have the coop that has a plan. It's one of the rare cases in which we have an understatement of who has decent access.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: In general, 4 out of 5 people in rural North Carolina, approximately -- There's a little bit of an overstatement there, but still most people seem to have basic broadband access from one provider.

H.R. Trostle: 4 out of 5 rural residents for sure, do. Supposedly according to the data, 93% of all of North Carolina has basic broadband access.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I found interesting was that I think, when you look at the state's reaction, the state of North Carolina did their own report a few months ago. We were not really impressed with it. I think their conclusion was, "Wow, we're doing really well. Sure, we got to figure out some way of doing better, but we're doing really well." Our conclusion was that North Carolina's really not doing that well. In fact, I found interesting that when you look at their access to higher quality Internet access, you often find it's utterly lacking. You have that basic broadband tier as the maximum in a number of these rural regions, but there's nothing above that level.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, it's very, very frustrating. Especially looking at where fiber is actually available. It tends to be available in urban areas or from coops.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, so there's not a lot of what we would call private sector or private company investment in fiber in rural North Carolina.

H.R. Trostle: Not at all.

Christopher Mitchell: Which I find very interesting, because their urban areas seem to be getting more investment, on average. None of those big companies are building out to everyone, but parts of their triangle, parts of Charlotte, parts of the suburbs around there, are getting fiber optic access from Google, from AT&T, from CenturyLink. At the very least they've announced it and made it available in a few partner buildings, but there's been a lot of announcements.

H.R. Trostle: There have been a lot of announcements but there's, from what I can tell, very little actually been done.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, they might just be on their way to doing it. It might be a charitable way of reading. In part, it does seem to me, and you and I both follow these things closely. It seems to me that there is some more investment in fiber optics in urban North Carolina areas than in your average metro regions around the United States.

H.R. Trostle: For sure, I've been looking at Minnesota and Tennessee as well. Doing something similar. There is so little actual private investment in those urban areas of Tennessee and Minnesota.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. Let's move on to talking about some of the subsidies, because what I'm confused about is AT&T and CenturyLink seem to be getting a king's ransom from the Connect America fund, and yet they're not investing significantly in these areas, from what I can tell. How much are they getting?

H.R. Trostle: From the Connect America fund, AT&T's accepted about three and a half million dollars each year, to serve about 13,000 people by 2020 with not a broadband connection, but a connection of 10 megabytes per second, download speed.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's unpack this for a second, all right. Three million dollars per year for four years. Twelve million dollars?

H.R. Trostle: Just about.

Christopher Mitchell: To connect how many homes?

H.R. Trostle: To connect 13,000 in rural and under-served areas.

Christopher Mitchell: Specific areas where they do not have, according to the map, broadband access. By 2020, they will deliver a connection that's 10 megabytes down and 1 megabyte up, at a minimum.

H.R. Trostle: Yes.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, in some areas, and we'll talk about CenturyLink's numbers in a second. In some areas, I think we'll see them exceed that. I think CenturyLink will only provide that basic connection to some of their homes, but some of their homes will probably get a 40 by 5 connection or, occasionally, maybe, a gigabyte. I really doubt that, frankly, but they'll probably -- Homes that are close to the DSLAM, which, I always call it the magical device that turns your copper phone lines into an Internet provisioning system. People that are close enough will get higher speeds than 10 by 1, but AT&T seems to be really going for that minimum speed. They're just doing this wireless only product. This news really came out after our report was put to rest, but it's worth noting that AT&T seems to be really taking it seriously that they do not have to out-perform 10 by 1.

H.R. Trostle: That's what they want to do. CenturyLink, meanwhile, is getting about 10 million per year. They're going to serve 36,000 people with that same baseline.

Christopher Mitchell: I can only imagine what these coops in North Carolina could be doing with 40 million dollars a year. I find it infuriating that Uncle Sam is throwing away here, in just two companies, 52 million dollars to provide connection that would have been obsolete last year. It's really, really frustrating. Let's move on to what the coops are doing. What did you find in terms of, let's talk about the telephone cooperatives first. What are they doing in North Carolina?

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, so there are eight telephone cooperatives in North Carolina. All of them are deploying some sort of fiber for Internet service. Six have committed to serving their entire service areas, several have actually completed those projects. The map is looking so much nicer.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, it's remarkable when you see the map that you've prepared, of where fiber exists in rural North Carolina. You see these areas in the central northern part of the state, you have this big block. In the northeastern part of the state, you have this big block where it seems that every last person has access because they're served by a telephone cooperative.

H.R. Trostle: Yes, and the telephone cooperatives are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.

Christopher Mitchell: I was actually talking with a reporter and I made that exact point. The reporter was saying, "Is it surprising to you that the private sector is not getting this job done in rural North Carolina?" I was thinking, "No, it is not surprising." These are people who are served by co-ops because, for 100 years, we understand that the private sector does not do a good job providing the essential infrastructure for rural communities. The business model does not work for the way that they want it to. We have telephone coops and we have electric coops. It shouldn't be surprising that these approaches are the ones that are best serving North Carolina's rural communities.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, and North Carolina has 26 electric coops. Several have already taken steps to providing Fiber-to-the-Home or Fiber-to-the-Business. Lumbee River, Blue Ridge Mountain, they are in possibly even more sparsely populated areas than the telephone cooperatives.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, and that's not very surprising, frankly. The electric coops serve so much of the state that, on average, I can imagine -- Not even average. The electric coops serve such a large part of the state that there's just so many more opportunities for them to be serving the least dense areas. The areas that are the hardest to reach, but these electric coops have, historically, I feel like, resisted getting involved. Are you seeing that changing in your conversations with North Carolina's electric coops or, as they call them, EMCs?

H.R. Trostle: Yeah. EMCs is electric membership corporation. That conversation is really changing and part of that is the electric cooperatives are deploying fiber to communicate with their substations. They already had that as a growing part of their electrical infrastructure. Now they can actually use that for telecommunications. Previously, their infrastructure that would have been good for broadband access would have been just the poles.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, when you say communicate with the substations, I always imagine them, "Hello substation, how are you doing today?"

H.R. Trostle: "Hello world."

Christopher Mitchell: I have to think, if I'm the state of North Carolina, I should be really excited about these coops investing and trying to promote that and doing everything I can to say, "Hey, how can we make this happen more quickly?" How is North Carolina reacting? You read the report. I skimmed it, I read some sections in-depth, but the state of North Carolina's report, did they really actually recognize the way that the coops are already doing this?

H.R. Trostle: They did not recognize the growing role of coops. Not at all. The state of North Carolina didn't even really address one of the barriers to electric cooperatives. Getting involved in telecommunications. There are some restrictions how an electric cooperative can access capital from the Rural Utility Service funds and from the USDA. It's rather discouraging to investment.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so the state of North Carolina says, if you're an EMC. If you're a rural electric coop, you can not get telecom loans or grants from the Rural Utility Service to distribute those. You also can't form a subsidiary. Now there may be other ways for these EMCs to find of accessing capital and to be able to build these networks, but I just find it stunning that the state wants to say, "We're going to officially discourage you from accessing the USDA," which is the main system that has built our cooperative infrastructure system around the country. All of the electrical coops, the telephone coops, they've all depended on our rural utility service funding. North Carolina says, "Hey, you know what? You guys are investing in rural communities, but we're going to make it harder on you." It's the exact opposite of what you'd want.

H.R. Trostle: It is the complete opposite of what you want. That's not all -- Other states also discourage electric cooperative's investment. Tennessee, New Mexico, but there are work-arounds.

Christopher Mitchell: Where there's a will, there's a way, right?

H.R. Trostle: Pretty much.

Christopher Mitchell: That may not be true with some forms of municipal broadband investment, though. We've saved the biggest hot button issue for us last, which is HB129, or just H.129, depending on the system that you use in referencing it, but this is a law from 2011. We've talked about it so many times. The FCC repealed it, it came back through the 6th circuit, reinstated it, but basically North Carolina tells local governments, "You can not build broadband networks."

H.R. Trostle: North Carolina does not support municipalities building their own networks. H129 is sort of a zombie law in that it came back and has now ruined things for Highlands and Pine Tops and a few family farms that really were depending on that connectivity.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, let's talk about that. The City of Wilson, incredibly successful municipal fiber network. We've talked about them many times because they were, with Chattanooga, the two of them went to the FCC to roll back these laws. Wilson, during that period when the law was not in effect, built out to some of its neighbors that desperately needed access but did not have broadband access. This family farm in Nash County, they could not even basically run their IT systems, they couldn't be a modern packing facility because they didn't have the Internet access they needed. Wilson comes along, provides it to them, the state of North Carolina challenges the law, goes to the 6th circuit. The 6th circuit says, "The FCC does not have the authority to change that law, so the law's reinstated." Wilson's going to have to disconnect its fiber optics networks from the small community and the nearby family farms.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, Wilson had to vote to do that. They could have tried to continue service, but it would have just led to an even greater mess.

Christopher Mitchell: They would have had to shut down their entire system, ultimately. Wilson City has universal access. Wilson County has significant access, but it all would have been at risk if they tried to continue under their current laws. As this goes to air, there will be one week left, basically, of service that Wilson will be providing nearby. Then it will have to turn them off. Now, this is the part that kills me, though. The fiber optics cables, the optical network terminal devices will be on the side of the house still. I find it incredibly frustrating that people are going to have all of the things that they need to have world class Internet service in their home, but the state will say, "You can't use it for that." Wilson can use it to monitor the electrical system, to say, "Hey, how you doing?" To the substations, to communicate with the substations. It's there, but they won't be able to deliver Internet service.

H.R. Trostle: I would say it's a quirk of the law, but it's actually the entire point.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, exactly. Here's a question then, as we head toward the end and I'm done ranting about the injustice in Wilson and Pine Tops and altitude in Highlands. What is the next step? What can North Carolina do if it actually has leadership that cares about promoting rural connectivity, rather than just lining the pockets of powerful CenturyLink and AT&T, their lobbyists and their interests?

H.R. Trostle: Well, it would be really simple to repeal H129, but I don't know if that's actually ever going to happen.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, let's go a step further and say, let's assume that that got rid of it. You have some towns that move forward, more importantly, perhaps, you have the existing networks able to expand and serve their neighbors. You still have a lot of areas, I mean what do you see in terms of the electrical -- Is it feasible to think that electric coops could solve most of North Carolina's problem? A way that partnerships with the telephone coops expanding outside of their areas? I mean, is this a pipe dream or is this something that could happen?

H.R. Trostle: No, this is entirely possible. The electric coops can work with the telephone coops to provide better connectivity. They don't have to actually worry about providing the telecommunication services themselves, they can simply partner with someone who already has experience in doing that.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that we're starting to get a sense, from some of the reaction to the report, is that this is starting to happen. There is hope, I think.

H.R. Trostle: There is. It would be a little bit nicer if they could get rid of some of the restrictions on the electrical cooperatives access to capital.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and I also think, as you have the electric coops and the telephone coops doing this expansion. It must be incredibly frustrating. Let's imagine that you're just outside of the Wilkes cooperative area and the Riverfront Networks.

H.R. Trostle: RiverStreet.

Christopher Mitchell: RiverStreet Networks. You are right outside of there and you're not getting service from them. They're working with a couple of other areas nearby, but they can't build everywhere at once. North Carolina says, "Too bad, you can't get do it yourself. You have to wait until they come to you." Or something like that. I just, I think that the H129 restrictions are such a slap in the face to communities. To say, "Yeah, you're losing property value, you're losing businesses, people don't want to move in there, but you can't solve the problem yourself. You have to just hope that someone else is going to come along and solve it for you."

H.R. Trostle: Yep, even if you have the technical expertise, you're just not allowed to.

Christopher Mitchell: It runs totally contrary to everything that we believe in at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and what people and communities should be empowered to do.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: I hope that people have a chance to check out this report. I think we're going to be seeing more maps, more exciting stuff coming from Hannah, from the work that you're doing. You already prove it a little bit, Tennessee and Minnesota are in the works. I hope people stay tuned to your work.

H.R. Trostle: I hope so too.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with H.R. Trostle, our colleague and one of the authors of our recent report on connectivity in North Carolina. You can download the report at and to learn about the urban/rural digital divide and how coops and muni networks are finding ways to close the gap. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow stories on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at Thank you to the group Mojo Monkeys for their song, "Bodacious", licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

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.

Update on Utah's Open Access UTOPIA - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 223

In the north central region of Utah, eleven communities are now served by a regional open access fiber-optic network operated by the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency or UTOPIA. UTOPIA’s Executive Director, Roger Timmerman, and Mayor Karen Cronin from member community, Perry City, take time to speak with us for Community Broadband Bits episode 223.

One of the great advantages UTOPIA has brought the region is the element of competition. Rather than facing a choice of only one or two Internet Service Providers like most of us, people in UTOPIA cities sign up for a connection to the network and then choose from multiple providers who offer a range of services via the infrastructure. Competing for business brings better products, better prices, and better customer service.

Since launching in 2004, UTOPIA has faced financial uncertainties created by onerous state laws that force a wholesale model on publicly owned networks. Regardless, Mayor Cronin has seen the network improve connectivity in her community, which has improved the local economy and the quality of life. After working with the network since the early days, Roger sees that UTOPIA’s situation is on the upswing but has witnessed firsthand how those harmful state laws limiting local authority can put a smart investment like UTOPIA in harm’s way.

Read the transcript of the show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

"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.​

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.

Wilson Forced to Turn Off Service to Pinetops

Last night, Wilson’s City Council voted to halt Greenlight Internet service to the community of Pinetops, North Carolina. City leaders, faced with the unfortunate reversal of the FCC’s preemption of harmful state anti-muni laws, felt the move was necessary to protect the utility. Service will stop at the end of October.

No Other Solution

Before the vote City Manager Grant Goings told the Wilson Times:

“Unfortunately, there is a very real possibility that we will have to disconnect any customer outside our county. That is the cold, hard truth,” Goings said. “Without getting into the legal options that our city attorney will discuss with the council, I’ll summarize it like this: we have not identified a solution where Greenlight can serve customers outside of our county.

“While we are very passionate about reaching underserved areas and we think the laws are atrocious to prevent people from having service, we’re not going to jeopardize our ability to serve Wilson residents.”

When H129 passed in 2011, it provided an exemption for Wilson, which allows Greenlight to serve Wilson County. The bill also states that if they go beyond their borders, they lose the exemption. North Carolina’s priorities are clearly not with the rural communities, but with the big corporate providers that pushed to pass the bill.

After Wilson leaders took the vote, Christopher commented on the fact that they have been put in such a difficult position:

"It is a travesty that North Carolina is prioritizing the profits of the big cable and telephone companies above the well-being of local businesses and residents. The state legislature needs to focus on what is good for North Carolina businesses and residents, not only what these powerful lobbyists want."

Economic Progress Grinds To A Halt

Vick Family Farms, highlighted in a recent New York Times article, is only one Pinetops business that faces an uncertain future. The potato farm invested in a new packing plant that requires the Gigabit connectivity they can only get from Greenlight. Incumbent Centurylink has explicitly stated that is has no intention to upgrade infrastructure in a community of only 1,300 people.

In a letter to Governor McCrory, Mayor Burress rightly lays the blame on the shoulders of the state. “In effect,” he says, “the state of North Carolina is turning off our Gigabit entry to the 21st century global knowledge economy.”

He also describes how Gigabit connectivity to rural Pinetops, brightened their future in a number of ways:

“The economic future of my rural community improved immediately when we gained access to Wilson’s broadband service. Compared to what we had been receiving from the incumbent, access to Greenlight services was like being catapulted from the early 1990s into the 21st century. Our small businesses and residents have saved hundreds of dollars and significantly increased their productivity because of the reliable and super fast Greenlight speeds. Our town commissioners also began planning a new economic development strategy, because as a Gigabit fiber community we became newly competitive in the region for attracting creative class and knowledge workers from Greenville and Rocky Mount and the new jobs created by the Rocky Mount CSX distribution hub.”

The Pinetops Board of Commissioners passed a resolution after the Wilson vote, calling on the North Carolina General Assembly to repeal H129. Wilson Energy will still use the fiber connections to Pinetops homes but customers will not have the option to use the infrastructure for connectivity. Nevertheless, if there are future changes in North Carolina laws that remove the state barriers, Pinetops could once again be served by Wilson’s Greenlight.

Bigger Than Wilson

When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit made their decision to reverse the FCC's ruling on the anti-muni laws, their decision immediately harmed the community of Pinetops. Their decision, however, reaches to every rural community where the big Internet Service Providers don't offer the fast, affordable, reliable connectivity needed in the 21st century.

In the words of Wilson's City Manager:

“This is bigger than Wilson. This is about the rural areas, particularly in eastern North Carolina, because the majority of the area does not present enough profitability to attract the private-sector investment,” Goings said. “As a community, a state and frankly as a nation, we need to find ways to connect these rural communities, and our city council believes strongly that our state officials should focus on being part of the solution instead of constructing barriers to prevent communities from being served.”

Unanimous Dissent Radio On Munis, The FCC Decision, And State Barriers

Last week, Christopher was a guest on the Unanimous Dissent Radio Show. Sam Sacks and Sam Knight asked him to share information about the details on state barriers around the country.

The guys get into the nitty gritty on state level lobbying and anti-muni legislation. They also discuss how a growing number of communities are interested in the local accountability, better services, and improved quality of life that follows publicly owned Internet infrastructure.

The show is now posted on SoundCloud and available for review. Christopher’s interview starts around 17:00 and runs for about 15 minutes. Check it out:


Press Release: The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided to dismiss the FCC's decision to encourage Internet investment in Tennessee and North Carolina

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided to dismiss the FCC's decision to encourage Internet investment in Tennessee and North Carolina

Minneapolis, MN - The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided today to dismiss the FCC's February 2015 decision to encourage Internet investment in Tennessee and North Carolina. Tennessee and North Carolina had both restricted local authority to build competitive networks.

"We're disappointed that the FCC's efforts to ensure local Internet choice have been struck down," says Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "We thank the FCC for working so hard to fight for local authority and we hope that states themselves will recognize the folly of defending big cable and telephone monopolies and remove these barriers to local investment. Communities desperately need these connections and must be able to decide for themselves how to ensure residents and businesses have high quality Internet access."

ILSR and Next Century Cities filed an Amicus brief in support of the FCC's position. View the Court's Opinion here.


Rebecca Toews


Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses FCC In Disappointing Ruling

Disappointing news from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals today as the Court chooses to reverse the FCC’s February 2015 preemption order that peeled back restrictive state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. We have the opinion for you to download and review. You can also view the decision at the Sixth Circuit's website.

We consider the Sixth Circuit’s decision disappointing, incorrect, and we hope the FCC and the cities of Chattanooga and Wilson appeal this decision. Local connectivity and telecommunications should be determined by the people who will be affected by their own decisions, not by officials who are distant, unaware of local matters, and lobbied by rich corporate Internet Service Providers with an interest in limiting competition.

Anti-Monopoly, Pro-Internet Access Groups React

In their statement, Next Century Cities, who joined us in filing an Amicus Brief, said, "Today’s court ruling is a setback in the fight to ensure access to next-generation broadband for more Americans, and Next Century Cities is disappointed by this decision."

The Open Technology Institute (OTI) responded by pointing out that, while the effort to restore local authority has stalled, the FCC's action has focused new attention on the benefits of local publicly owned networks:

“Today’s ruling doesn’t change the fact that these laws were hurting communities in Tennessee and North Carolina. They were written by telecom industry lobbyists to protect incumbents like AT&T and Comcast from competition. Similar laws exist in other states, and they all need to go. State legislatures should repeal these laws and replace them with ones that promote competition and consumer choice.

Although the FCC lost this particular case, the agency’s efforts put a spotlight on these pernicious laws and gave momentum to repeal efforts in statehouses across the country. The case also highlighted the success of locally grown networks, which are typically faster and more affordable than anything offered by private industry. Every community should have the ability to make smart investments in this type of infrastructure.”

Baller, Stokes & Lide, the lead counsel to EPB and Wilson, pointed out that this is only one battle in a war for restoring the rights of communities to pursue their own Internet infrastructure decisions:

“This is a very disappointing decision, but support for local Internet choice is growing rapidly across America, and the fight to preserve, protect, and advance community decision-making will go on,” said Jim Baller. 

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) and Common Cause also released statements that expressed deep disappointment and a resolve to press on to restore local authority. Common Cause Special Advisor Michael Copps, himself a former FCC Commissioner, stated:

"This decision does not benefit our broadband nation. Nor is it a good reading of the law. But if the FCC cannot set aside these bad laws, then the people must. We will redouble our state-by-state efforts to repeal these odious policies.”

FCC Commissioners Also React

Read their statements about the decision that reversed the Commission's action:

To learn more about the decision, check out our prior coverage:

If you really want to understand this issue well, we recommend Harold Feld's discussion of it on the Wetmachine group blog.

More to come. We will comment further as we dig into the Opinion...

TN Study Suggests Stamping Out State Barriers

The results of a statewide Tennessee survey on residential and business connectivity are in and they ain't pretty. Thirteen percent of the state - more than 834,000 people - don’t have access to 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, which is the FCC's definition of broadband. Authors of the study make a number of recommendations, the first of which is removing state barriers that stifle Internet infrastructure investment.

"...A More Open Regulatory Environment"

The study, commissioned by the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) earlier this year, includes feedback from more than 23,000 households and businesses. 

From page 13 of the report:

The State of Tennessee could consider lifting administrative burdens and restrictions to broadband infrastructure investment to fostering a more open regulatory environment. 

In the report, the authors provide detailed reasoning for why the state should embrace an open regulatory environment to encourage competition. They note that state barriers impact electric cooperatives, municipalities that operate electric utilities and cannot expand beyond their own service areas, and municipalities that do not operate electric utilities but can only build telecommunications infrastructure in unserved areas with a private partner.

The FCC came to the same conclusion in February 2015 and rolled back Tennessee state laws in order to encourage competition. Tennessee is leading the charge against the FCC's decision with North Carolina (even though NC's Attorney General criticized the law). The parties have filed briefs, attorneys have presented oral arguments, and now the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering the case.

The report goes on to recommend other policies, including dig-once, smart conduit rules, and one-touch make ready. Some of these policies have been challenged in other states by the big incumbents, such as the AT&T fight in Louisville against one-touch make ready. It’s no secret that Governor Bill Haslam has been content to let these same corporate gigantaurs effectively run the show in his state for some time now. 

Business Critical

Beyond recommendations, findings from the study were also revealing. The press release from the TNECD stated that the study shows fast, affordable, reliable connectivity is especially important to Tennessee’s businesses:

Businesses participating in the assessment reported broadband enabled 43 percent of all net new jobs and 66 percent of revenues. In addition, 34 percent of businesses classified broadband as essential to selecting their location, and 56 percent noted that it was essential to remain in their location. Sixteen percent of economic development agencies reported that businesses frequently chose not to locate in an area due to insufficient broadband. (emphasis ours)

Both business and residential participants cited reliability as the most important factor to them when analyzing their connectivity. Businesses also considered upload speed critical to their use of the Internet.

Urban vs Rural

While the survey determined that 13 percent of people in the state don’t have access to 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps, the “vast majority” were rural folks. According to the survey, 98 percent of urban participants DO have access. Those would include people who live in places such as Chattanooga, Pulaski, and Clarksville - all towns with municipal networks.

The survey found a correlation between access to the Internet and a number of factors, four of which were the most prevalent:


  • The economic status of the community 
  • Number of ISPs (level of competition)
  • Type of connection
  • Population density 

Removing state regulatory barriers would allow a number of these rural areas to partner with municipalities that have already invested in Internet infrastructure. Nowhere else is this situation more apparent than in Bradley County. Cleveland Utilities (CU), the electric, water, and sewer provider in the county would like to partner with nearby Chattanooga EPB Fiber Optics to bring fast affordable, reliable connectivity to customers but state law forbids it. Bradley County and a number of other rural communities have appealed to state lawmakers because it is a matter of economic urgency and educational necessity for their children. They are still waiting.

Bills to eliminate the state barriers have been introduced but while the number of State Legislators supporting them has increased, the movement does not have the force to restore local authority...yet.

Break Down The Barriers 

Haslam referred to his administration’s report as “a starting point” and TNED Commissioner Randy Boyd cautioned that, “Not every option included in the report may be the answer for Tennessee, nor is there one simple solution.” 

It must be hard to hold the line as expert opinion and evidence chip away at the flawed logic behind Tennessee's state barriers. It's becoming increasingly apparent that the laws do not benefit the people of Tennessee; they are in place strictly for the big cable companies and telcos that operate there.

For the full report, visit the TNECD website.