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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

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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.

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“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.

Major Media Outlets Cover 6th Circuit Decision Limiting Local Authority

Various Sources, August 10-11, 2016

A circuit court decision this week means the digital divide in Tennessee and North Carolina will be allowed to continue. This week, the 6th Circuit Court of appeals decided to dismiss the FCC's decision to encourage Internet investment by restricting local authority to build competitive Internet networks. In February, ILSR and Next Century Cities filed an Amicus Brief in support of the FCC's position. Here is a selection of media stories which cite ILSR.

MEDIA COVERAGE - "Court of Appeals Overrules FCC Decision"

Cities looking to compete with large Internet providers just suffered a big defeat by Brian Fung: The Washington Post, August 10

There are signs, however, that municipal broadband proponents were anticipating Wednesday's outcome — and are already moving to adapt. One approach? Focus on improving cities' abilities to lay fiber optic cables that then any Internet provider can lease; so far, only one state, Nebraska, has banned this so-called "dark fiber" plan, said Christopher Mitchell, who directs the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's Community Broadband Networks Initiative.

"We're pursuing strategies that are harder for the cable and telephone companies to defeat," said Mitchell.

Circuit court nixes FCC’s effort to overturn North Carolina, Tennessee anti-municipal broadband laws by Sean Buckley: Fierce Telecom, August 10, 2016

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However, pro-municipal broadband groups like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which filed an amicus brief in support of the FCC's position, said they are "disappointed that the FCC's efforts to ensure local Internet choice have been struck down.”

Court Deals FCC a Big Blow in Municipal Broadband Ruling by Alex Byers: PoliticoPro August 10, 2016 (subscription needed)

For now, proponents of the FCC’s order said they would work state-by-state to change laws restricting municipal broadband networks. Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute For Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks program, said the FCC order highlighted the issue and inspired other communities. “The FCC may have lost the case but they’ve still done a service for America,” Mitchell said. “In making the decision that was later overturned, they certainly elevated the issue.”

Analysis: The government just lost a big court battle over public Internet service by Brian Fung: Chicago Tribune, August 11, 2016

Congress Should Support Community Broadband Networks, Advocates Say by Sam Gustin: Motherboard Vice, August 11, 2016

“I would love to see renewed enthusiasm around this bill, and I would love to see it pass,” Christopher Mitchell, Director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told Motherboard. But with Republicans currently in control of both the House and the Senate, Booker’s bill has virtually no chance of becoming law, especially given the tremendous amount of political influence wielded by the likes of Comcast and AT&T, Mitchell said. He warned that even if the legislation moved forward, industry-friendly lawmakers could try to weaken the bill or insert anti-community broadband provisions... “With the GOP in control, Marsha Blackburn would crush this legislation,” Mitchell said. “That’s why she gets more money from the cable and telecom industry than anyone else. She would make sure it doesn’t go anywhere.”

U.S. court rules FCC lacks authority to upend state bans on community-run broadband by Aaron Sankin: Daily Dot, August 11, 2016

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Last year, the FCC made a bold push to let cities and counties around the county make significant investments in their high-speed internet infrastructure. On Wednesday, a trio of federal judges dealt that effort a major setback... “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,” Mitchell said in a statement. “Communities desperately need these connections and must be able to decide for themselves how to ensure residents and businesses have high quality Internet access.”

Federal court blocks FCC efforts to protect municipal broadband expansion by Alex Koma: StateScoop, August 11, 2016

Indeed, Chris Mitchell — director of the community broadband initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance — argues that “states have gotten away with pulling a fast one in terms of lying about their intentions,” claiming that the matter isn’t so easily dismissed as a question of federalism. “The challenge is understanding whether these states are regulating their cities or regulating interstate commerce, as the FCC argued, and I think that these states are clearly trying to regulate internet access, as opposed to just what these cities could do,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think the court really got that.”

Next Steps Pondered After Muni Cable Ruling by Gary Arlen: Broadcasting and Cable, August 11, 2016

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"Once there's light shined on those laws, enough state legislators will decide it's time to stand up to the incumbents," said Mark C. Del Bianco, an attorney who represented Next Century Cities and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, two advocacy groups that supported the efforts of Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to build competitive high-speed networks for their citizens."

Court Says FCC Can't Stop States from Blocking City Broadband Efforts by Shirley Siluk: NewsFactor Network August 11, 2016

"We're in a better place now that we had been [before] the FCC order," Mitchell told us today. "More communities have been inspired. We've seen a remarkable increase in the number of municipalities promoting access."

Mitchell said FCC commissioners who supported the order deserve a lot of credit for such developments. Mitchell said that outside of efforts in Tennessee and North Carolina, his organization's work to promote local broadband development will continue uninterrupted.

Photo of the newspaper stack courtesy of Globalimmigrantnews through Wikimedia Commons. 

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...

North Carolina Communities Create West-Next Generation Network

Drawing inspiration from a previous project in the Research Triangle, communities around Asheville are joining forces. The goal is high-speed Internet access.

West - Next Generation Network (WestNGN) is a multi-government collaboration in the Asheville area to encourage investment in fiber-optic networks for Gigabit (1,000 Megabits) connectivity to the region.

An Established Model

The Research Triangle, the area around Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, started a new collaborative model to bring Gigabit connectivity to their communities. Six municipalities and four universities there established the North Carolina Next Generation Network (NCNGN). The project encourages private sector providers to develop ultra-fast networks.

The Land of Sky Regional Council is an Ashville-based multi-jurisdictional development organization that includes Asheville, Biltmore Forest, Fletcher, Hendersonville, Laurel Park, and Waynesville. 

A Wide Impact

The Land of Sky Regional Council will provide project management by setting up a steering committee, analyzing regional data, and drafting a Request for Proposals (RFP) for Gigabit service. The group hopes high-speed Internet service will boost economic development. 

They want to reach 125,000 customers south and west of Asheville. As Smoky Mountain News reported the project costs for the first year total $35,000. Each community will pay $4,000 and then contribute proportionally based on population. For instance, Asheville will pay $11,893, and Waynesville will pay $4,877. 

Waynesville is the seat of Haywood County, which is working to improve connectivity by developing a broadband master plan. While the Haywood County Economic Development Council’s planning focuses on opportunities for the county, Waynesville is collaborating with communities in nearby counties through the WestNGN project. 

"An Awesome Opportunity"

Andrew Tate, President and CEO of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, explained how the WestNGN model works to local news BlueRidgeNow:

“It allows our local units of government to apply leverage to the private sector to further deploy broadband, especially to areas that wouldn't get it otherwise or that wouldn't see it. ... Most of those areas are not the areas we focus on in terms of employment or industrial development, but I think it's a wise move. I think it's an awesome opportunity for local governments to collaborate with one another and look for an opportunity to improve the region."

Greenlight Upgrades Pinetops, North Carolina, With FTTH

In April, Wilson’s, municipal fiber network, Greenlight, expanded to pass every home in neighboring rural Pinetops. How is it going? Acting Town Manager, Brenda Harrell said, “We just love it!”

No Longer Out of Reach

Pinetops is about a 20 minute drive due east from Greenlight’s operations center, but more importantly, it is in another county entirely. Wilson serves six neighboring counties with its municipal electric services. Turning on internet service in Pinetops was an easy reach for Wilson, where fiber was being deployed as part of an automated meter infrastructure project.

Back in February 2015, the FCC preempted a North Carolina state law, known as H129, that prohibited Wilson from serving any residents outside of Wilson County. The preemption allowed Wilson to finish the project it had to suspend when H129 became law. In addition to the benefits of automated metering, Pinetops now experiences a higher quality of life with fast, affordable, reliable Internet access.

Greenlight To The Present

For Pinetops, bringing fiber services to its residents and small businesses was like snapping it from the late 1980s into the 21st century. Pinetops is a community with about 600 homes all located within one square mile. It is by all signs rural, surrounded by huge open fields of sweet potatoes, tobacco and soy plants. The average median income is $26,333; according to the census bureau, 30 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. Local officials, say that the community was desperately underserved with unreliable DSL service or dialup before Greenlight came to town. Thanks to Wilson, even the local Piggly Wiggly market has fiber-optic Internet from Greenlight.

Looking Ahead

The community is excited for its future. After watching a video of how quickly video homework can be uploaded on a Gigabit connection (8 seconds) versus DSL (2 hours and 59 minutes), the new Town Manager, Lorenzo Carmon, was full of ideas. Pinetops, with median homes valued around $78,000 and the option of Gigabit speeds (1,000 Megabits per second), could offer low cost affordable housing to professionals now living in Greenville, a nearby university community full of doctors, students, digital artists and knowledge workers.

 “If the private sector is not providing the services, the government has to step in,” said Pinetops new Town Manager, Lorenzo Carmon. “The internet is just like electricity. You can’t live without it.”  

Fibrant Gets The "OK": Will Expand To Local Government, Manufacturers in NC

Salisbury’s fiber network, Fibrant, is about to connect to three more large customers in North Carolina.

The Salisbury Post writes that Rowan County government and two local manufacturing facilities will be connecting to Salisbury’s municipal fiber network. After considering the needs of several local manufacturers and the Rowan County Government, Rowan County Commissioners gave the necessary approval to expand Fibrant to serve their facilities.

Local Manufacturing Wants Fibrant

The manufacturing facilities, Gildan and Agility Fuel Systems, are both located outside of Salisbury’s city limits, but within Fibrant’s service area. State law requires they obtain permission from the Rowan Board of the Rowan County Commissioners to allow Fibrant to extend service to their location.

Rowan County government also wants to connect to Fibrant and the same law applies to them. The County will use Fibrant as a back-up to their regular Internet connection for a while before deciding if Fibrant should become their primary service service provider.

Meanwhile, Gildan and Agility Fuel Systems just want the high-speed and reliability of the Fibrant network. Gildan is a Canadian manufacturer that makes activewear clothing. Since 2013, the company has worked to expand its existing yarn spinning facility, bringing skilled manufacturing jobs to the region. Agility Fuel Systems makes alternative fuel systems for large trucks. Currently, Agility Fuel Systems uses a connection speed of 20 Megabits per second (Mbps). Fibrant can offer capacity connections up to 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps).

The Agility Fuel System’s North Carolina Director of Operations, Shawn Adelsberger, actively pushed for a Fibrant connection. According to the Salisbury Post, Adelsberger wrote to Rowan County in May:

“Such connectivity will help us to maintain our networked manufacturing equipment, to maintain operation for our global customers and to not have product deliver risk due to network slowdowns and interruptions.”

A Bit Of A Process

Connecting to Fibrant is not easy outside of Salisbury’s city limits. A 2011 North Carolina state law prevents the creation of new municipal networks and imposes restrictions on existing ones. Fibrant cannot extend outside of its service area, and any extension has to go through several layers of approval.

Although the two manufacturing facilities and most of Rowan County are technically within Fibrant’s service area, Rowan County still needs to approve any new extension of the fiber network. After that, each Rowan County municipality must also authorize any Fibrant extensions into their city limits.

After the County Commission approved the expansion, Fibrant Director Kent Winrich told local media, "In my opinion, this is a big deal for economic development for Rowan County.”

Haywood County, NC, Releases Feasibility Study RFP

Last month, the Haywood Advancement Foundation (HAF) sowed the seeds for a long-term broadband strategy in Haywood County, North Carolina. The nonprofit foundation posted a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a feasibility study as part of their strategy to develop a master plan and improve local connectivity. A $10,000 grant from the Southwest Commission and a matching $10,000 grant from HAF will fund the early stages of Haywood’s broadband initiative. The due date for proposals is July 15th.

Living In The Present, Planning For The Future

Located about 30 minutes west of Asheville, Haywood County is home to approximately 60,000 residents. Asheville’s status as a cultural hub might be driving up Haywood County property values, but it has failed to bring high quality Internet access to its rural neighbors. 

State law complicates local municipalities' ability to provide fast, affordable, reliable connectivity via municipal networks. North Carolina’s HB 129, passed in 2011, and is currently under review in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) overruled the state law in early 2015, citing the bill’s burden on the national goal of advancing ubiquitous Internet access. North Carolina and Tennessee challenged the FCC’s decision, oral arguments were heard in March, and all participants are now waiting for a ruling. A master plan can help the community establish different courses of action, depending on the ultimate outcome of the court case.

Mark Clasby, executive director of the Haywood County Economic Development Council, reiterated just how important universal access and higher speeds would be for the community:

“We are committed in making our county have high speed access to the Internet for our citizens, it’s a must for our future. Schools will also be going more digital and kids will need broadband service for their homework. Then there are people who want to move to Haywood to work and have our quality of life. They want to live in Crabtree or Newfound but they have to have Internet access.”

A 2015 countywide survey shed light on the current state of connectivity. More than 20 percent of county households remain unconnected to the Internet, 31 percent connect exclusively through mobile, and 83 percent of those who are connected report insufficient speeds. Local officials are determined to seek educational opportunities, drive up property values, and bring jobs to the region with a fast, affordable, reliable network. 

Fixed Wireless Helping Out In The Hills

Wireless technology may play a factor in serving rural residential pockets. The Smoky Mountain News reported:

“After talking to cable providers like AT&T and Charter and wireless providers like Skyrunner, Clasby said it’s clear that Haywood County needs some kind of hybrid service to offer better speeds and rural access.”

There are isolated Haywood neighborhoods that obtain Internet access from local fixed wireless providers using mountaintop towers. Homeowner Jake Robinson, who uses Skyrunner, told Smoky Mountain News, “We were not prepared for [such difficulties connecting our home to broadband] — had we known, our decision on buying that house may have been different.” 

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We recently spotlighted Highlands, North Carolina, a community located in the Appalachians. Highlands uses its municipal fixed wireless service to provide Internet access to homes where Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) is not practical. Fiber is serving businesses in Highlands downtown area and plan to extend it to residents. Their long term goal is to bring FTTH to as many properties as possible, but they are using fixed wireless to serve the immediate need.

RS Fiber Cooperative, a rural Minnesota broadband cooperative, is using fixed wireless to temporarily extend to cooperative members in hard to reach areas. Eventually, they will connect all members with fiber.

RFP Deets

So far there are no estimates for what it may cost to build a broadband network in Haywood. The upcoming broadband assessment and feasibility study will provide more information about estimated costs and network structure in the coming months. Clasby hopes to compose a final broadband master plan by year’s end. 

Final proposals are to be submitted to HAF by July 15th at 5:00 pm.

You can get more information by checking out the RFP online or by emailing Mark B. Clasby: mclasby(at)haywoodchamber.com.

Highlands, North Carolina, Learns To Fish With Altitude Community Broadband

Highlands is a small community of less than 1,000 residents located in the Nantahala National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains. Along the western tip of the state, Highlands faces the same problem as many other rural communities - poor connectivity. In order to bring high-quality Internet access to residents and businesses, Highlands has implemented a plan to deploy city-owned Internet network infrastructure.

A Connected Escape Up In The Mountains

Highland entertains a large number of summer tourists who flock to its high altitude to escape summer heat and humidity. Summer visitors can fill the city’s six square miles and surrounding area with up to 20,000 people. The city operates a municipal electric utility along with water, sewer, and garbage pick up. 

To round off the list of offered services and bring better connectivity to the community, Highlands created the Altitude Community Broadband. In January, the Town Board authorized to borrow $40,000 from its General Fund and $210,000 from its Electric Enterprise Fund to deploy and launch the new service. The loan will be repaid with revenue from the new service.

The town has long-term plans to offer both Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) and fixed wireless service to residents and businesses in the downtown area. Fiber is already available in limited areas within Highlands proper; pricing is available on a case-by-case basis. The landscape is rugged, so residents outside of the city may not be able to transition to FTTH, reported a December HighlandsInfo Newspaper, but the fixed wireless access is still an affordable and workable option in a place considered a poor investment by large providers.

Residential options for Altitude Wireless Internet Access are:

  • Basic (Just give me Internet): 4 Megabit per second (Mbps) [download] ... $34.99
  • Better (Supports some streaming video): 10 Mbps [download] ... $39.99
  • Video Streaming (Comes with free Roku): 25 Mbps [download]... $59.99
  • Extreme (Everyone in my home is connected. Comes with free Roku): 50 Mbps [download]... $119.98

Subscribers can also sign up for the $9.99 per month “carefree in home Wi-Fi”, which is a service in which the utility installs and maintains the customers wireless router, insuring all devices connect and function properly.
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There is also the option to pay an additional $9.99 per month for additional static IP addresses. Installation is free.

Altitude Community Broadband's website also promises something you NEVER get from Comcast, CenturyLink, or any of the other big boys:

Customer speed is determined at time of installation. Customer will not pay for unattainable speeds.

Recently, the Highlander ran an update from Mayor Patrick Taylor who reported that demand for the Wi-Fi service throughout Highlands was so intense, installations had fallen behind. The Town Board decided to hire two more technicians to tackle the long list of people requesting installation.

Locals Can Fix It, If We Let Them

Highlands’s elected officials reflect the self-reliant attitude of this small town who have decided to solve their problem themselves. In a March article to the Highlands News, Mayor Taylor wrote to report that the Appellate Court was considering the case between the FCC and the cities of Wilson and Chattanooga. Taylor wrote:

Overturning the FCC broadband ruling would be a setback for small towns languishing in the digital desert. It is not just a matter of economic development. Upon further study and discussion with our consultants, I now view it more as as a matter of economic and community survival. Either a community will have unlimited broadband capacity or it will wither and dry upon the economic vine.

Nationally some 200 small-town governments are doing exactly what Highlands is doing. State legislators this past session changed the sales tax distribution formula so poor communities could receive more sales tax revenue for economic growth. I have a suggestion: Don’t create laws that obstruct the development of broadband networks in these underserved communities. It is counterproductive to their economic development. Instead, why not allocate funds to bring broadband to these isolated areas? What’s that proverb about ‘give a man a fish’?

Dark Fiber For The Future In Caswell County Schools, NC

Caswell County School Board members recently voted to take a long-term approach to student connectivity in North Carolina.

Ten Years Was A Lifetime Ago

Earlier this month, the issue of Internet access for the schools came before the Board because a lease with the telecommunications company connecting school buildings is about to end. Since the inception of the 10-year agreement, computer and Internet use in schools has skyrocketed; Caswell County Schools now aim to have every child on a computer at school. The district is now served by satellite Internet access to school facilities and in order to supply the speed and reliability they need, the Chief Technology Officer David Useche recommended a fiber-optic network to the Board.

Lease vs. Own

Useche offered two possibilities: 1. lease a lit network, which costs less in the first years of the contract but will not belong to the school district; or 2. pay more for the first five years to have a dark fiber-optic network constructed. The dark fiber network infrastructure will belong to the school district. Caswell County will use E-Rate to help fund the construction of the network, which will result in an overall long-term savings of $35,000. Useche told the Board:

“If we look at the projections for the Lit network, in ten years after E-Rate our cost is going to be $214,255. With the Dark network the cost is $178,729. The difference is a savings of $35,000,” said Useche, who added that the district will use $751,000 in E-rate funds to help build the network. Useche said that the State of North Carolina is using E-rate funds to build networks in some of its rural areas. “If we didn’t have E-Rate funds we could not afford either of these options. We are lucky to have them to provide the services the schools need.”

The Board agreed with Useche’s recommendation to approve the dark fiber option. The agreement will include 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) connectivity for less than $100 per month more than 1 Gbps connectivity. “It’s not like we need ten gigabits right away but pretty soon we will need that much bandwidth,” said Useche.