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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.

Local Authority "A-Number One" Priority For Congress, Says Wheeler

“A-number one importance.”

On September 15th, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee gathered to discuss FCC oversight and telecommunications issues. Among those issues, the Committee discussed municipal networks.

Senator Cory Booker (D - NJ) asked FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to provide his thoughts on how important it is that Congress takes action. The matter he put before Wheeler was the prospect that Congress act to allow local communities to have local authority on issues relating to Internet infrastructure and advanced telecommunications capabilities. How important is it?

Wheeler’s answer: “A-number one importance.”

Wilson, Pinetops, And A Harmful State Law

Booker, who introduced a bill in 2015 to restore local authority, brought up the subject of Wilson, North Carolina, and nearby Pinetops. When the FCC rolled back restrictive state laws in 2015, Wilson’s electric utility finally had the legal authority to help their neighbors so began offering high-quality Internet access through it’s municipal Internet service, Greenlight. Earlier this summer, the Court of Appeals found in favor of the state, which challenged the FCC decision. As a result, Wilson must cut off service to Pinetops or risk losing the legal ability to serve anyone. The FCC has announced that it will not pursue further review of the decision and will focus its resources on other areas. 

Booker described the situation in Pinetops as “disturbing,” but went on to praise Wilson for investing to solve the need in the region and pointing out how local businesses, including those in Pinetops, came to depend on those investments. He went on to say he was “disappointed, if not angered” by the Court of Appeal’s decision.  

Watch a clip of the hearing:

For Pinetops and other rural communities where big cable and DSL companies refuse to bring the connections they need, the North Carolina General Assembly has betrayed them. Rather than give local communities the tool they need to move into the 21st century, the men and women of the state Capitol would rather bank on heavy campaign donations from the industry heavy hitters. These are the same entities that pushed to pass state laws that prevent local communities from investing in their own futures. 

An Enlightened FCC

Wheeler has advocated for local authority for some time now, a significant shift from past FCC Chairmen, who continued to push the antiquated notion that large private sector providers would be our saviors. In his August 10th statement on the Court of Appeals Order reversing the FCC decision, Wheeler stood with Pinetops and other rural communities who want their state legislators to stand down:

“Should states seek to repeal their anti-competitive broadband statutes, I will be happy to testify on behalf of better broadband and consumer choice. Should states seek to limit the right of people to act for better broadband, I will be happy to testify on behalf of consumer choice.”

Tom Wheeler, Cory Booker, and an increasing number of elected officials are now seeing the benefits of publicly owned Internet networks, thanks to a growing momentum of local community leaders, business owners, and advocates.

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:

 

Eliminate the Digital Divide - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 218

After his daughter asked how her classmates could do their school homework if they did not have a computer or Internet access at home, Pat Millen's family formed E2D - a nonprofit organization called Eliminate the Digital Divide. This week, Pat and I talk about their strategy, which was created in the footprint of North Carolina's municipal MI-Connection but is now expanding through Charlotte and working with incumbent operators.

E2D has arranged an innovative and replicable program to distribute devices, provide training, and arrange for an affordable connection. Along the way, they developed a sustainable funding model rather than merely asking people with deep pockets for a one-time donation.

An important lesson from E2D is the richness of opportunity when people take action locally. That is often among the hardest steps when success is far from assured - but these local actions are the ones that can be the most successful because they are tuned to local needs, assets, and culture.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

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

This show is 30 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 Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

Feld Breaks Down 6th Circuit FCC Reversal

In our last Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher and I discussed the August 10th U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decision to reverse the FCC’s February 2015 ruling against state barriers. We mentioned Harold Feld’s article about the ruling posted on his website. In keeping with most matters of importance in the municipal Internet network field, Harold expertly sums up the history of the case, the arguments, and what the outcome could mean for the future.

Feld gets down into the crux of the argument that won over the three judges in the Sixth Circuit - the need to establish if it is states or federal agencies that make the decisions regarding whether or not local governments can provide telecommunications.

Determining the answer was a multi-step process and Feld explains how the FCC came to the conclusion that they had the authority to preempt the laws and the states' arguments against it. This was, after all, a test case and Feld describes why the FCC chose Chattanooga and Wilson.

Read more on Feld’s Tales of the Sausage Factory, where he speculates on how the big incumbent providers will react to their win and what is next for municipal network advocates. From Harold:

As with most things worth doing in policy land, it’s disheartening that it’s an uphill fight to get to rational policy. The idea that states should tell local people in local communities that they can’t invest in their own local infrastructure runs against traditional Republican ideas about small government and local control as it does against traditional Democratic ideas about the responsibility of government to provide basic services and promote competition. But that’s how things work in public policy sometimes. We can either give up and take what we get, or keep pushing until we change things for the better.

North Carolina and Tennessee Lose in 6th Circuit - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 217

It has been several weeks, but Lisa and I wanted to answer any lingering questions people may have about the results of the Sixth Circuit case reviewing the FCC's action to remove state-created barriers to municipal networks. We devoted Community Broadband Bits episode 217 to the case and aftermath.

The Sixth Circuit ruled against the FCC narrowly - finding that while it had no dispute with the FCC's characterization of municipal networks as beneficial, Congress had not given the FCC the power to overrule state management of its subdivisions (cities). As we have often said, restricting local authority in this manner may be stupid, but states are allowed to do stupid things (especially when powerful companies like AT&T and Comcast urge them to).

Lisa and I explore the decision and explain why we are nonetheless glad that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioners Rosenworcel and Clyburn moved on the petitions from Chattanooga and Wilson to remove state barriers to next-generation network investment. We also reference this blog post from Harold Feld, which is a well-done summary of the situation.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

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

This show is 20 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 Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

NYTimes Examines Sixth Circuit Reversal: Potatoes And Pinetops

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued their order on August 10th supporting the states of Tennessee and North Carolina in their challenge from an FCC decision from February 2015. Both states objected to the FCC’s decision to preempt state laws preventing municipalities from providing fast, affordable, reliable connectivity via municipal Internet networks. The Appellate Court Judges reviewed the legal arguments, the precedent, and the interplay between federal authority and state sovereignty. 

The impact of their ruling will affect more than a few pages in a law school text book. Access to high-quality Internet access positively impacts real people and businesses and, as Cecila Kang captures in her recent article in the New York Times, the people who depend on it fear the outcome if their state legislators take it away.

Family Farm Fear

Kang profiles Vick Family Farms, a family potato farm in Wilson, North Carolina.  The Vick family chose to invest in a processing plant when they learned that Wilson’s Greenlight would provide the necessary connectivity. Greenlight allowed them to increase sales overseas. Now, they may lose that connection:

“We’re very worried because there is no way we could run this equipment on the internet service we used to have, and we can’t imagine the loss we’ll have to the business,” said Charlotte Vick, head of sales for the farm.

As Kang notes in her article, the FCC has no plans to appeal the decision, so battles will resume at the state level. Advocates will need to be twice as vigilant because incumbents - the only ones that come out ahead from this decision - may try to push state legislators for even tougher anti-competitive state barriers.

Pinetops: Poster Child For Good Connectivity

Kang checks in on the small town where Wilson’s Greenlight began offering Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Gigabit service about 14 months ago. Pinetops, a nearby community of about 1,300 people, sought help from Wilson in the hopes that Greenlight would spark economic activity in their struggling community. Centurylink, the incumbent only offered DSL, grossly inadequate for local businesses. 

When Greenlight expanded to Pinetops, the town saw the beginning of a rebirth of sorts. Now the community waits in limbo, wondering what will happen next.

Kang introduces readers to Tina Gomez:

Tina Gomez, a Pinetops resident, quickly saw Greenlight’s benefits. She recently got a telework job with General Electric, which requires reliable high-speed internet service to run a customer service software program. Ms. Gomez, 37, also started online courses in medical billing and coding. Before subscribing to Greenlight, finding telework was a challenge because the existing home internet service was too slow, she said.

Now the political squabble over broadband may hurt her livelihood. Mark Gomez, Ms. Gomez’s husband, said they would move from Pinetops to Wilson when their broadband service was disconnected.

“We can’t stay if the basic services we need aren’t here,” Ms. Gomez said.

Beyond The Courtroom

Executive Director of Next Century Cities Deb Socia summed it up when she told Kang:

“This is about more than North Carolina and Tennessee...We had all looked to the F.C.C. and its attempt to pre-empt those state laws as a way to get affordable and higher-quality broadband to places across the nation that are fighting to serve residents and solve the digital divide.”

For Rural Pinetops, Being A Gigabit Community Means Business In North Carolina

Unless you live in a rural community, you probably assume becoming a Gigabit community is all about the miracles of speed. Speed is important, but so is Internet choice, reliable service, and respectful customer service. It’s also about being excited as you consider future economic opportunities for your rural town.

Businesses Struggling With Old Services

Before Greenlight began serving Pinetops, the best community members could get was sluggish Centurylink DSL. Suzanne Coker Craig, owner of CuriosiTees, described the situation for her business:

Suzanne used to be a subscriber to Centurylink DSL service at her Pinetops home, but years ago she just turned it off. “We weren’t using it because it used to take forever; it just wasn’t viable.” She now has Greenlight’s 40 Mbps upstream and downstream service. “It’s just so very fast,” she said.

Her business, a custom screen printing shop, uses an “on-time” inventory system, so speed and reliability is critical for last-minute or late orders:

“We work with a Charlotte company for our apparel. If we get our order in by 5 p.m. from here, the next day it will be delivered. That’s really important for business.” Before Greenlight, Suzanne described how “We had been sweating it out.”  Suzanne’s tee-shirt store only had access to 800 Kbps DSL upload speed. She would talk to the modem. “Please upload by 5 p.m. Please upload.” Now she can just go home and put her order in at the last minute. “We are comfortable it will upload immediately….It’s just so much faster. Super fast…Having Greenlight has just been very beneficial for our business.” 

She also subscribes to Greenlight from home and her fiber connection is able to manage data intense uploads required for sending artwork, sales reports, and other large document transfers. As a Town Commissioner, Suzanne sees Greenlight service in Pinetops as more than just a chance to stop "sweating it out."

“I just see a brighter future for our town now,” she reflected. “It’s a neat selling point. It’s difficult in small rural areas to get good technology-based companies. This now opens the door for us to recruit just those kinds of businesses…It’s hard to imagine a business that does not need Internet access.” 

Without Reliability, Speed Is Nothing

mercer-transport.png

Brent Wooten is a sales agent and Manager for Mercer Transportation, a freight management business with an office in tiny, rural Pinetops, North Carolina. Pinetops is now served by Wilson’s community-owned, Gigabit fiber network, Greenlight.  Brent’s work, moving freight across the country via trucks, requires being on time; he’s an information worker in a knowledge economy.  “I am in the transportation business,” said Brent. “Having reliable phone and Internet are critical to running my businesses.” Being off line means losing businesses and never getting it back.

Before Greenlight came to town, Brent’s business paid Centurylink $425 per month for a few phone lines, long distance, an 800 number, and Internet access at 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1.5 Mbps upload. He was also wasting hours and even days each month trying to get his Internet fixed. “Every time they would tell me the problem was my equipment. It was always my fault.” But Brent had an IT expert on hire. “Never once was the problem actually my equipment.” He described long waits to reach customer agents whose heavy foreign accents made communication difficult and about the company’s unresponsive office hours. “I was told they could send someone the next afternoon, but I needed the network to work now....”

Brent’s experience with Greenlight was the complete opposite. When Brent’s corporate office changed the location of their backup servers, Greenlight staff were helping him at 6:00 a.m. and at 10:00 p.m., and were on the phone within seconds of his call. “It is a very refreshing situation for me -- the consistency of service, and the responsive and respectful customer service by local workers.” 

Internet Choice

When Greenlight came to the community, Centurylink changed their tune. Within hours of his business phone being ported to Greenlight, a Centurylink representative called him. “He offered to cut my current prices in half and double my Internet speed, from 10 to 20 Mbps…My Centurylink 10 Mbps speed never tested at more than 6 Mbps.”

Brent chose to keep his Centurylink phone service, but he kept his 25 Mbps symmetrical Greenlight Internet service because upload speed is critical to his business. “My computer screens don’t freeze up anymore. Greenlight service is flawless. The sheer speed of fiber is amazing and they are available 24 hours a day, I am served by local workers, it is saving me money and I get better service.” 

Greenlight brought Brent residential telephone and internet choice for the first time in more than a decade. “Greenlight saves me $140 a month at home,” he bragged. When Greenlight’s marketing director first arrived at Brent’s house, he learned Brent was being charged twice for his internet service. Brent had an in-law suite attached to his house where his mother used to live. “The Centurylink representative on the phone said I needed to have a second DSL account.” Not with Greenlight.

An Odd Way Of Competing

Brent described how he had been a Centurylink residential customer since 1989. “When I called to cancel my home telephone service, the woman just gave me my confirmation number and told me to have a nice day.” No attempt was made to keep Brent’s residential business.  “They did the same thing on my mom’s phone line. She had telephone service since before 1968.” When she passed away, Brent called to disconnect her line. “The person on the other end of the line did not even offer condolences.” He compared that to the human touch that originates from a service company that is community owned: “Greenlight’s installers even cared enough about my welfare to tell me they had discovered a water leak under my house when doing the installation. They told me they would have tried to fix it for me but they did not have the right tools.”  

The Intangibles

How do you put a value on the intangibles?  For Brent Wooten, Greenlight fiber service has not only strengthened his ability to do business, but has given the community a sense of hope that didn’t exist before access to fiber.

pinetops-store.png

“As a citizen and Town Commissioner, I am extremely excited to have the opportunity to have access to this service, and super excited about future opportunities that it will make available to us. It is an example of hometown people who care about serving you and bringing a higher quality of living to the community...It gives a sense of hope for Eastern North Carolina ... not just lip service.” 

Will It Last?

On August 10, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the FCC ruling that permitted Greenlight to expand to its fiber-optic service to Pinetops. What this means for these businesses and residents who now rely on fast, affordable, reliable Internet access remains to be seen. Along with Suzanne, Brent, and the rest of Pinetops, we hope Greenlight is able to continue to serve this rural community. They are using fiber to reach for new economic development opportunities and in only a few months, the community of 1,300 is optimistic about a future with better connectivity.