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Duck River Co-op Considering Rural Fiber Future

Duck River Electric Membership Corporation (DREMC) in Tennessee announced in September that it has launched a feasibility study to investigate ways to use a proposed fiber-optic network to bring better connectivity to members.

Exploring Added Value

According to the announcement, DREMC is considering investing in a fiber-optic loop to improve communications between its offices and substations. DREMC recognizes that this initial investment can be a first prudent step in considering the future of the cooperative and the vitality of rural Tennessee:

A fiber-optic loop has been proposed to connect all offices and substations, including the co-op’s emergency operations center. This project could also provide capacity for community purposes: fiber that could be leased to other parties, even Internet-to-home providers.

The broadband feasibility study will explore how the proposed fiber-optic loop might help improve connectivity in rural areas served by DREMC.

Within The Confines Of The Law

In Tennessee, electric cooperatives are prohibited from providing Internet access to residents, but DREMC still wants to use its publicly owned infrastructure for the benefit of members.

DREMC serves the areas south of Nashville. Columbia and Tullahoma are some of the more densely populated areas and have their own electric utilities, which also provide Gigabit connectivity. Rural areas outside of the cities rely on cooperatives like DREMC for electricity; the state restrictions will keep those communities in that last century for Internet access because national providers have no desire to serve them. 

From the announcement:

“This is a first but very important step,” says DREMC President and CEO Michael Watson.

“Today, so much depends on connectivity. Economic development, job creation and retention, healthcare, education, and public service are all enhanced by access to broadband Internet. But many rural households and communities do not have the connectivity they need.”

Watson describes the situation as very similar to the mid-1930s when electric cooperatives were created to bring central station power to rural America.

“Co-ops found ways to build power distribution systems at lower cost, using a non-profit business model based on member ownership, local control, innovation and dedication to community. We believe the same cooperative principles might be applied today to solve the broadband connectivity problem in southern Middle Tennessee,” he says.

Action In The State Capitol?

There is a faction of Tennessee legislators pursuing changes in state laws to improve local connectivity. Those changes focus on municipal network restrictions, but laws for cooperatives could be close behind. By investing in the infrastructure, DREMC is cleverly positioned to either lease to private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or offer services directly if the law changes in the future.

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."

North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Publication Date: 
October 11, 2016
H. R. Trostle
Christopher Mitchell

North Carolina's digital divide between urban and rural communities is increasing dangerously in a time when high quality Internet access is more important than ever. Rural and urban areas of North Carolina are essentially living in different realities, based on the tides of private network investment where rural communities are severely disadvantaged. The state has relied too much on the telecom giants like AT&T and CenturyLink that have little interest in rural regions.

Download the Report

The state perversely discourages investment from local governments and cooperatives. For instance, electric co-ops face barriers in seeking federal financing for fiber optic projects. State law is literally requiring the city of Wilson to disconnect its customers in the town of Pinetops, leaving them without basic broadband access. This decision in particular literally took the high-speed, affordable Internet access out of the hands of North Carolina's rural citizens.

The lengths to which North Carolina has gone to limit Internet access to their citizens is truly staggering. Both a 1999 law limiting electric cooperatives' access to capital for telecommunications and a 2011 law limiting local governments' ability to build Internet networks greatly undermine the ability of North Carolinians to increase competition to the powerful cable and DSL incumbent providers. 

In the face of this reality, the Governor McCrory's Broadband Infrastructure Office recommended a "solution" that boils down to relying on cable and telephone monopolies' benevolence. What this entire situation comes down to is a fundamental disadvantage for North Carolina's rural residents because their state will not allow them to solve their own problems locally even when the private sector abandons them.

"It's not as if these communities have a choice as to what they're able to do to improve their Internet service," says report co-author Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "There's a demonstrated need for high-quality Internet service in rural North Carolina, but the state literally refuses to let people help themselves."

Read ongoing stories about these networks at ILSR’s site devoted to Community Broadband Networks. You can also subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks.

From The Report:

  • Despite significant tax subsidies from the state and federal government, North Carolina's private providers are building their fiber-optic networks only in certain metro areas and none in rural regions.
  • Only 12 percent of North Carolina's rural population has a choice for their broadband access, the rest are stuck with only one option and no control over their Internet prospects.
  • All of North Carolina's telephone cooperatives are investing in fiber for members in their service territory, some have entirely replaced their copper lines with fiber-optic. 
  • While North Carolina has 26 electric cooperatives capable of bringing fiber-to-the-home to rural residents, a 1999 state law (N.C. Gen. Stat § 117-18.1) limits the co-ops' access to capital for telecommunications projects.

Download the Report

Mediacom Lawyers Slow Competition With Court Time, Resources


When big corporate incumbent providers fear a hint of competition from a new entrant, they pull out all the stops to quash any potential threat. One of the first lines of offense involves the courts. Iowa City now leases its fiber to Cedar Rapids based ImOn and to stop it, Mediacom is reprocessing an old argument. It didn't work the first time, but they are going for it anyway; this is another example of how cable companies try to hobble competitors; just stalling can be a "win."

A Lawsuit In Search Of An Offense

Mediacom has a franchise agreement with Iowa City to offer cable television services and it also provides subscribers the option to purchase Internet access and telephone services. As most of our readers are attuned to these matters, you probably already understand that just any old cable TV provider can’t come into Iowa City and set up shop. State and local law require them to obtain a franchise agreement, which often includes additional obligations in exchange for access to a community’s potential customer base.

According to a 2015 Gazette article, Mediacom provides annual payments for use of the public right-of-way, operates a local office, and provides free basic cable services to local schools and government buildings. These types of commitments are commonplace as part of franchise agreements and are small sacrifices compared to the potential revenue available to Mediacom.

ImOn started offering Internet access and phone services to Iowa City downtown businesses in January but the company does not offer cable TV services like it does in other Iowa municipalities. ImOn doesn't have a franchise agreement with Iowa City but Mediacom says that it should. They argue that, because ImOn has built a system capable of offering video service, it should also have to obtain a franchise agreement.


In August, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Wolle dismissed the case, stating in a nutshell:

"Although ImOn is constructing in Iowa City a system that may become capable of delivering cable programming, ImOn is not now delivering cable programming. Therefore, ImOn is not presently required to seek a cable franchise.” 

Blast From The Past

This isn’t the first time this argument has echoed off the walls of a courtroom. Back in 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit dismissed a similar case between Time Warner Cable (TWC) and the city of North Kansas City. The situation was similar, except the city had not yet decided whether to invest in the required head end to provide video over the fiber-optic network they wanted to deploy. At the time, a Missouri law required a vote if the community planned to build and own a system in order to offer cable TV services. TWC wanted the use the court for a pre-emptive strike: to bar the city from using the network for video services stating that they could not do so because they had never held a vote.

TWC's argument revolved around the question of whether or not the city owned or operated a cable television facility, which was in violation of state law. Since the network was not offering cable services and there was no head end yet - in fact they didn't even know if they wanted to invest in one - what really mattered was whether or not North Kansas City owned a "cable TV facility" without prior voter approval. In other words, were they building a network that was capable of offering cable TV services?

As in Iowa City, the court determined that the issue was not “ripe.” From the opinion:

It is factually undisputed that the City's fiber-optic network is not connected to the required head end facility to receive such signals nor is there any plan to acquire it. Thus, Time Warner's statutory claim rests on a contingent future event:  the ownership or operation of a cable-television facility by the City;  therefore, Time Warner's claim that a vote is required under Missouri law is not ripe in that the City does not currently own or operate a cable-television facility because the planned fiber-optic network will not be capable of transmitting cable-television signals and because the City recognizes that in order for it to provide cable-television services a public vote would be required.


Let's not put the cart before the horse.

Jeff Janssen, vice president of sales and marketing for ImOn said in December that if the provider’s plans change, they will take the necessary steps:

“Franchise agreements are all around cable TV,” he said. “Once we decide, or if we decided to offer cable TV in Iowa City, we would get that franchise agreement, we are required to.”

Every Tool In The Anti-Competitive Toolbox

Mediacom has approximately 4,500 employees and, like the other large corporate providers, they have a highly qualified regiment of attorneys. Not likely they missed the similarities between the North Kansas City and Iowa City cases, but there’s more than one way to win.

Traditionally, winning means presenting the facts and proving to the judge that they fit into the law and that your interpretation of how they work with the law is more correct than your opponent's. For companies like Mediacom and TWC, however, winning can also mean delaying your opponents project to drive up their costs or cool subscriber interest. In other words, going after the fruit before it is "ripe."

Winning may also mean forcing the other side to give up and walk away by driving up their legal costs or making them lose progress when construction is delayed and subscribers lose confidence in the project.

Big incumbents have become masters at using the courts for sabotage schemes, no matter how frivolous the perceived infringement. They sue or threaten to sue over poles, attempts to streamline, and what services a city can and cannot offer. The state legislatures that have passed laws restricting local authority have only helped massive telecoms and cable companies abuse the courts by providing vehicles for their lawsuits. At the same time, they have forced local governments to waste citizen funds and stalled Internet access, typically to the communities most desperate for it.

You can read the Order for Summary Judgement, the Order Amending the Order (which appears to correct a typographical error), and the Notice of Appeal for more.

"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.

Ammon Model In Louisiana? Ask The Voters!

Voters in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, will get the chance in December to decide if they wish to invest in a fiber-optic network, reports the Advocate.

Louisiana Looks At Idaho

This past summer, Parish President Kevin Couhig presented the plan to create a new parish fiber optic utility. His plan includes an open access network to draw competition that will be based on the Software-Defined Network (SDN) of the Ammon model:

Couhig’s plan would get away from single Internet service providers, which control speed, innovation, bandwidth, data limits and price. Instead, the ISPs would compete through the parishwide network. Each consumer could control what they would have available through the open access such as internet, phone, video and interactive gaming.

Parish staff worked with a consulting firm for several months to develop a feasibility study, define costs, and draft a network design. They estimate the network would cost a little over $5.7 million and would require about 107 fiber miles. In December voters will decide whether or not to accept a plan to fund the network with a 4-mill property tax levy for five years, beginning in 2017. On September 14th, the Parish Council voted to allow the question to be placed on the December ballot.

Redefining Infrastructure In The Bayou

The city will still need to determine how the state's barriers will affect their plans. West Feliciana Parish is 30 miles north of Baton Rouge and home to approximately 16,500 people. There are about 426 square miles in the parish, which is located along the Mississippi River. In July, when Couhig presented the detailed study to the Parish Council, he expressed his motivation for the project:

“As important, we will bring to our residents economical, modern services in entertainment, data, community and health service capabilities that will be on par with any place in the world…To be successful, we need to grow and maintain all of our types of infrastructure, but in the modern world, that must include broadband capability.”

For more details on Ammon’s SDN model, listen to Christopher talk to Bruce Patterson, the city’s Technology Director, in episode #207 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. You can also check out our video for more on Ammon:

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:


Madison, Wisconsin, Gets Serious About Municipal Fiber

The City of Madison, Wisconsin is one step closer to constructing a citywide municipal fiber network after obtaining the results from a broadband feasibility study. The consulting firm hired in December 2015 recently completed the study and made it available to the city’s Digital Technology Committee and the public.

The report recommends Madison build an open access dark fiber network and engage a partner to offer services to subscribers via the infrastructure. Westminster, Maryland, and Huntsville, Alabama, use the same approach with partners Ting and Google Fiber. Madison’s network would build on the existing Metropolitan Unified Fiber Network (MUFN), a smaller fiber network that was funded with stimulus dollars through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). It connects public institutions such as the University of Wisconsin, Dane County, hospitals, K-12 schools, and DaneNet, which is made up of 28 community groups serving low income families and seniors. 

Consultants suggest Madison retain ownership of the infrastructure in order to maintain control of the asset and the city's future connectivity. The City would fund the $150 million cost of building a dark fiber network and their private partner would contribute an estimated $62 million to connect properties. Consultants envision the partner responsible for cable to residences and businesses, network electronics, and consumer electronics, bringing the total cost for the project to approximately $212 million.

"Now here’s the key: that’s a lot of money. The report talks about how to get it and we can bond and do a lot of other things, but it basically says to make this happen, you need a private partner," said Barry Orton, a member of the Digital Technology Committee. Orton went on to say that a more specific cost estimate, including identification of partners, would be forthcoming, as soon as Spring 2017.

An Ongoing Project

While the study reveals significant interest in a municipal fiber network, city officials recognize that big corporate incumbents keep a strong hold on the state's legislative landscape.

“All they are doing is recycling customers,” said Madison Mayor Paul Soglin of big incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the feasibility study press conference.

“They aren’t stepping in, providing the kinds of service that this world needs in the next decade. Not in the next 100 years, now. And so we’re working on a considerable handicap in Wisconsin because of the success the industry lobbyists had in writing the legislation for our Legislature. But we do have the ability, which you are about to see in the report, on how we can take Madison into the 21st Century and do it rapidly.”

Madison has discussed residential broadband access for several years and in 2013 established a Digital Technology Committee to address the city’s digital divide. The committee first looked into universal wireless access, but determined an open access citywide fiber network would better fit the city’s needs. They went on to establish a fiber pilot in four low-income neighborhoods.

Open access fiber networks offer several advantages over fixed wireless models, including longevity and the potential for meaningful competition. In an open access network, multiple ISPs can compete to provide service to residents via the Infrastructure, which leads to better customer service and more affordable rates. In a fixed wireless model, a city typically contracts with one ISP.

Survey Results: The People Want Fiber

Madison’s fiber pilot program is still under construction but all eyes are on the feasibility study. While pilot programs are a good way to obtain data about the interest in a community, Madison may not need to wait for data to begin pursuing a municipal fiber network.


The study commends the pilot program for its role in promoting resident trust in the city as an infrastructure provider, but the survey results suggest demand for citywide fiber access already exists.

While most respondents report they have access to the Internet through a wired connection at home (89 percent) or through a cellular device (77 percent), those numbers drop significantly for low-income respondents: 24 percent of households making $24,000 or less have no Internet access at all.

As for willingness to choose a high-speed connection, the majority of residents would be willing to switch from what they have (cable or DSL) if the price were under $50 per month, even with a one-time hook up fee of up to $250.

Moving Ahead

In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s administration turned down $23 million in federal funding to improve Internet access, citing “too many strings attached” to the grant. More recently, the state made $1.5 million available to incumbent ISPs to expand service in rural areas; they claim funding will improve service for about 8,500 households. Given their track record of unfulfilled promises, Wisconsinites aren't holding their breath.

Some federal funding for fiber is available, and Barry Orton suggested that Madison expects more will be available after the 2016 election. “We might be, next spring, shovel-ready for whatever federal money is possibly available for cities to pursue these kinds of things,” said Orton in the feasibility study press conference.

“It’s not going to be easy,” said Mayor Soglin. “We’re going to have to deal with the cumbersome burdens created by State legislation, which is designed to protect existing companies and keep us away from doing this. But it will actually introduce real competition, not to mention a level of service imagined by only a handful of cities in the world.”