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"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.

Contact:

Rebecca Toews

rtoews@ILSR.org

612-808-0689

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:

logo-TNEDC_0.jpg

  • 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.

Problem With Poles In Connecticut: Petitioning PURA For Precision

In Connecticut, local municipalities want to take advantage of the state’s unique “Municipal Gain Space” but invoking the law has not been hassle-free. As towns try to place fiber-optic cables on this reserved section of utility poles, questions arise that need answering. 

Giving Towns Some Room On The Poles

The Connecticut statute grants state departments and municipalities the right to use space on all of the approximately 900,000 utility poles sitting in the municipal Rights-of-Way (ROW), regardless of ownership. One of the state's electric providers and either Verizon or Frontier jointly own most of the poles.

The law was created in the early 1900s for telegraph wiring and as new technologies and wire types evolved, a number of law suits ensued. Cities and state entities usually won, preserving the space, but the process of getting attachment agreements approved became more burdensome and expensive. In 2013, the state legislature amended the law so municipalities could access to the space “for any use.” The change opened the door for hanging fiber for municipal networks and partnering with private providers.

A Little Help Here...

In theory, it seems simple but in practice, pole administrators - Electric Distribution Companies (EDCs) and telephone companies - and government entities need guidance. As communities across the state band together to improve local connectivity and try to use the law, they have uncovered its flaws. It has potential, but the Municipal Gain Space law needs sharpening to be an effective tool. Its application rules are not sufficiently defined and a number of technical issues are not addressed. 

The state’s Public Utility Regulatory Agency (PURA) has the authority and responsibility to establish rules to settle the problems with the law. Deploying a municipal network is no small task; the Office of Consumer Counsel (OCC) and the State Broadband Office (SBO) hope to simplify the process for local communities. They have petitioned PURA to clarify the Municipal Gain Space rules. In their formal petition, they ask PURA to investigate and remove barriers that interfere with the “timely and efficient use of Municipal Gain.” Read the petition at the PURA website.

Lack Of Direction Jeopardizes Local Projects

We spoke with Elin Swanson Katz, Consumer Counsel, and Joseph Rosenthal, Principal Attorney from the OCC. Bill Vallee, the state's Broadband Policy and Program Coordinator joined the conversation. They described how a lack of direction for pole administrators and other gaps in the Municipal Gain Space law negatively impacts deployment for municipalities that decide to employ it. From inception to implementation, communities find themselves confronting some common questions.

A city may decide to invest in a project and use the Municipal Gain Space law to determine a route for their fiber-optic network cables.  As they move forward, they find that there are a number of unresolved questions, beginning with where on the pole the Municipal Gain Space should be located. Often the other entities that are using the poles have not reserved space for a municipality’s unrestricted use.

utility-pole-1.png

Once they answer the important issue of where on a pole a cable belongs, the next question is who pays to rearrange the existing wires so the new cable can be attached? For example, if a telephone company hung its wire but failed to reserve the space for the town to use later, who should pay for the make-ready costs when the town decides to use its statutory space under the Municipal Gain Space rule? How should make-ready costs, which can make or break a municipal fiber project, be allocated?

Time is critical; that holds true in the telecommunications industry in a number of ways. New rules would also establish who would be responsible for assessing the condition of the poles to expedite projects that depend on pole availability. Scheduling trucks and technicians from the various entities using the poles, fragile financing schedules, deployment delays that cause subscription losses, are only a few factors impacted by timing that affect the viability of a public or private network.

Limiting Competition With “An Offer You Can’t Refuse”

As communities have moved forward with fiber projects, some have entered into agreements with pole owners whose draft pole attachment agreements dictate the terms. Local communities may feel they have little choice, especially if they depend on critical funding tied to a tight deadline.

Some pole attachment agreements violate the law because it includes language that restricts municipalities’ use of the Municipal Gain Space. By limiting the space to “government use,” pole owners are able to prevent partnerships between municipalities and other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who may wish to provide services to businesses or residents via publicly owned infrastructure. Such a restriction eliminates a range of options for local communities who may not have the ability to operate and maintain a fiber network alone. Incumbent providers are using their pole attachment agreements to stifle and delay municipal networks, including those that involve private partners, as a way to limit competition.

seal-somers-ct.jpg

Local communities must go out of their way to avoid these restrictive agreements if they want to preserve their ability to one day use their fiber for something other than a "government use."

For example, Somers had been awarded state funding to connect to the state education network but refused to sign the pole attachment agreement from Frontier. The resulting delay almost caused them to lose the state grant and they eventually engineered the network to avoid Frontier poles so they would not have to restrict away their Municipal Gain Space.

As part of the petition, the OCC and SBO are asking PURA to develop rules that could be used to build a standard agreement between municipalities and the telecommunications companies or EDCs that own the poles.

Washing Away The Mud For Everyone

In their June 21st news release, the OCC emphasized that the Municipal Gain Space rules affect a number of entities:

Other interested stakeholders in a PURA proceeding regarding the municipal gain would likely include the Single Pole Administrators (the two Electric Distribution Companies), the incumbent telephone companies, the several cable operators, long-term infrastructure investors, the diverse set of utilities, municipalities, investors, other entities that already engage in pole attachments, and Connecticut business and technology promotion groups seeking high-speed internet access.

"The process is daunting and in some circumstances clear as mud...That whole process needs to be clarified," Katz told the Hartford Courant in June. If PURA agrees, the Municipal Gain Space may soon be sharpened and ready to break new ground for Connecticut communities.

Missouri HB 2078 Fails: Post Mortem Play-By-Play

Since we alerted our audience to the shenanigans surrounding Missouri’s HB 2078, a couple of other news medias have picked up the story and reported on the dramatic end of session climax. As we rest in the glow of the denouement, we want to provide a follow up for those who may have missed the final outcome and offer some words from Jim Baller, who was deep in the trenches.

Here's What Happened...

If you have not yet heard, the language from HB 2078 was ultimately not adopted by the Missouri State Legislature. Whew. Readers probably recall that, when HB 2078 stalled on its own, the author of HB 2078, Rep. Lyndall Fraker slipped some of the more damaging language into SB 765, a traffic ticket bill that had nothing to do with municipal networks.

Fortunately, advocates of municipal networks had been able to educate Members who were part of the appropriate conference committee. Those elected officials decided to remove the language from SB 765 before final passage. Anti-muni Members also attempted to amend the language into a third bill, HB 1912, which concerned county buildings. The sponsor of the amendment then turned around and chose to strip out the language that began in HB 2078 from his amendment, once he learned that its inclusion would have sparked a filibuster and killed the entire amendment.

A Tough Fight That Isn't Over

Jim Baller, the nation’s leading telecommunications attorney who was directly involved with defeating the bill told Communications Daily:

“This was one of the toughest state battles that we’ve fought in years. It took months of constant vigilance, quick and effective reactions to ever-changing language, and hard daily work with key members of the legislature. The most important part was getting across the message that this is not a matter of the public sector competing with the private sector, but of communities retaining the ability to work with willing incumbents, create public-private partnerships, develop their own networks, or do whatever else they believe necessary to acquire affordable access to the advanced broadband networks on which their futures will depend.”

Jim went on to tell us that a number of people dedicated their time and energy to stopping the harmful language of HB 2078.

“Many Missouri communities and national organizations contributed to this victory, but special kudos go to Ewell Lawson, the Manager of Government Relations of the Municipal Public Utility Alliance, and Richard Brownlee, Google’s legislative representative for Missouri.” 

The battle this year in Missouri was yet another chapter in what is becoming an annual occurrence. This year's events underscore how changes to bill language and procedural process can change the course of legislation up until the gavel comes down sine die. Along with Jim, Ewell, Richard, the MPUA, and the other folks who believe that local communities in Missouri should make their own decisions, we will continue to watch the state legislature and keep you in the loop.

Tennessee Potential Partnership Between Morristown Muni and AEC Co-op - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 203

In Tennessee, this month marks 10 years of Morristown Utility Systems delivering fiber-optic triple-play service to the community, including great Internet access. But those living just outside the city and in nearby cities have poor access at best. MUS General Manager and CEO Jody Wigington returns to our show this week and we also welcome Appalachian Electric Cooperative (AEC) General Manager Greg Williams to discuss a potential partnership to expand Morristown services to those that want them.

As we have frequently noted, Tennessee law prohibits municipal fiber networks from expanding beyond their electric territories. The FCC decision repealing that favor to the big cable and telephone company lobbyists is currently being appealed. But Tennessee also prohibits electrical co-ops from providing telephone or cable TV service, which makes the business model very difficult in rural areas.

Nonetheless, MUS and AEC have studied how they can team up to use the assets of both to deliver needed services to those outside Morristown. We discuss their plan, survey results, the benefits of working together, and much more.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 24 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 Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."