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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.​

Fact Sheet On Rural Connectivity In North Carolina

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice North Carolina chapter (CLIC-NC) and the Community Broadband Networks Team here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) have teamed up to create a new fact sheet: Fast, Affordable, Modern Broadband: Critical for Rural North Carolina.

This fact sheet emphasizes the deepening divide between urban and rural connectivity. The fact sheet can help explain why people who live in the country need services better than DSL or dial-up. This tool helps visualize the bleak situation in rural North Carolina and offers links to resources.

Rural North Carolina is one of the most beautiful places in the country but also one of the most poorly served by big Internet access providers. The gap between urban and rural connectivity is growing wider as large corporate providers choose to concentrate their investments on a small number of urban areas, even though 80 percent of North Carolina's counties are rural.

To add insult to injury, North Carolina is one of the remaining states with barriers on the books that effectively prohibit local communities from making decisioins about fiber infrastructure investment. CLIC-NC and ILSR encourage you to use the fact sheet to help others understand the critical need for local authority.

Download it here, share it, pass it on.

Learn more about the situation in rural North Carolina from Catharine Rice, who spoke with Chris in episode 184 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Wilson Moves to Expand Greenlight Network to Neighboring Town

Thanks to a new interlocal agreement, the City of Wilson, North Carolina will soon expand its Greenlight community broadband network to the nearby Town of Pinetops. Officials expect to complete the expansion of the gigabit fiber network by April 2016. Pinetops, a town of 1,300, is less than 20 miles from Wilson, population 50,000.

We’re Waiting...

For Brenda Harrell, Pinetops Interim Town Manager, the agreement has been a long time coming after years of frustration over their limited broadband access options.

“Current providers haven’t made significant upgrades to our broadband service through the years,” “They haven’t found us worth the investment. Through this partnership with Greenlight and our neighbors in Wilson, we are able to meet a critical need for our residents.”

As far back as 2010, city leaders in Wilson were in negotiations with Pinetops officials on a proposal to expand the Greenlight network to reach Pinetops. But those negotiations reached an impasse in 2011 when the State of North Carolina passed H129. Since then, officials in Wilson and in surrounding communities have been waiting for a time when Wilson could extend their the Greenlight network footprint.

The new agreement became possible in the wake of the FCC decision in February to overturn North Carolina’s anti-muni HB 129, allowing North Carolina communities to start considering the option to build their own broadband networks or expand on existing networks. While the state has appealed that decision in hopes of preserving the law, this agreement indicates Wilson officials are looking confidently ahead with the expectation that the state’s appeal will fail.

Looking Back, and to the Future

Last November, when the New York Times wrote about the fight in communities around the nation for the right to build and expand community broadband networks, they talked to Gregory Bethea, the now retired town manager of Pinetops, North Carolina:

“If you want to have economic development in a town like this, you’ve got to have fiber,” Bethea told them.

And that’s what this agreement is about: giving Pinetops the local authority necessary to create their own economic opportunities.

In that article the Times also quoted Will Aycock, the General Manager of Wilson’s Greenlight network. At the time, Aycock was already looking beyond the state’s anti-muni law to future expansion:

“We would probably be building tomorrow if the law changed today,” Mr. Aycock said. “We’re not saying that we’re going to build out all of eastern Carolina or even all of our service territory tomorrow. But there are areas where we’d like to go now.”

With this new agreement in place, Aycock is now able to see those plans for expansion come to fruition. Upon reaching the agreement, he said:

“Our commitment to improving the delivery of City services through our smart grid initiatives has made broadband service to Pinetops possible, as the same fiber that supports the smart grid system will be leveraged to deliver next generation broadband.” 

No Love Lost Between North Carolina A.G. And State Barrier

The State of North Carolina is currently awaiting a decision from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals as the court considers the FCC's February decision to roll back state barriers. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper's office is heading up the state's appeal, but is his heart in it?

Cooper is running for governor and, in a recent interview, expressed his views about H129, the focus of the appeal in North Carolina [emphasis ours]:

The Legislature has passed a lot of bad laws, but it is the job of the attorney general to defend state laws...And I wish the governor and the General Assembly would stop passing so many bad laws that create litigation. We’ve seen that in many instances. This is another situation where the attorney general’s office is duty bound to defend state law.

"Bad law" accurately describes H129, which is the reason why the FCC rolled it back in February. Perhaps Cooper's candid comment suggests that, if he one day becomes Governor, he will work with his colleagues in the state legislature to repeal it.

Rather than having to contend with this type of "bad law," local communities need the authority to make their own telecommunications decisions. After all, local folks are the ones that live with the results.

Fibrant Rolls out 10 Gbps, A Look At Salisbury's Challenges in FTTH

Salisbury, North Carolina's Fibrant, now holds the distinction of offering the fastest Internet access in the country. The municipal network is making 10 Gbps symmetrical connectivity available for residents and businesses.

Fibrant's first 10 Gbps customer is Catawba College, a local school that will use the ultra-fast connections for its new Digital Media Creation and Collaboration labs. In a press release Joanna Jasper, Catawba CIO stated:

"By moving to Fibrant's 10 Gbps speeds, the College is in a better position to differentiate itself. We can bring world-class broadband services to our campus community to support the next generation of educational applications."

"The future is all about rich immersive digital media and being able to communicate and collaborate with others in real-time regardless of where people are in time and space."

The city of Salisbury hopes this new standard will set it apart from other North Carolina communities and entice more economic development. From a BizJournals article:

“It helps us differentiate ourselves” among cities and states seeking technology companies, [says Kent Winrich, Director of Broadband and Infrastructure Services]. “It will attract international companies. It’s not sniping businesses from Charlotte.”

Winrich sees Salisbury attracting technology companies that need the bandwidth for real-time connections to clients and suppliers — software developers and data centers, for example.

The network, which already offers gigabit connectivity to businesses and residents for around $100 per month, has attracted several businesses to a community that once struggled with job loss. Mayor Paul Woodson told WFAE that the investment in Fibrant grew out of necessity:

"All we were trying to do was differentiate ourselves from other cities. We lost our mills, we lost our furniture factories. We decided we need to do something to replace the manufacturing the whole country was losing, not just Salisbury, the whole country, so that’s how we got started."

Listen to the entire WFAE story below and check out episode #168 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast for a conversation between Chris and Kent Winrich, Salisbury Director of Broadband and Infrastructure.

Salisbury has had to deal with a variety of challenges, having built the network during the worst economic downturn in 70 years and seeing Time Warner Cable slash its prices to undermine the municipal network. We thought the following background would be helpful.

Salisbury is located in west central North Carolina and home to approximately 34,000 people. In the early 2000s, the community suffered from high unemployment and businesses could not get the connectivity they needed from incumbents. There were key commercial areas in town that had no Internet access at all. Local leaders hoped the network would spur economic development an area that had previously been known for textile and other manufacturing.

Incumbent providers Time Warner Cable (TWC) and AT&T did not see enough profitability to justify upgrades, so community leaders had to take action without them.

seal-north-carolina_0.jpgIn 2005 the city began to investigate the idea of a municipal fiber network. An early survey suggested 30 percent of households would purchase at least one service from the city by the end of year three - TV, telephone, or Internet access. The local community expressed support for the project, including businesses, potential anchor institutions, and residents.

The city issued approximately $29 million in revenue bonds to finance its network deployment in November 2008. At the time of the issue, Moody's rated Salisbury at A-1 and Standard & Poor listed the city as A-plus which are equivalent ratings and considered "investment grade."

As plans moved forward, a series of setbacks delayed deployment and launch. Even though the city reached an agreement with AT&T to place city fiber on the incumbent's poles, preparing the poles took longer than expected. Synchronizing audio and video proved to be a challenge at first due to software glitches and there were also problems with remote controls accompanying set-top boxes. 

Incumbent Time Warner Cable, however, was able to take advantage of its substantial market share and cross subsidize to offer exceptionally low prices in the region. Certainly the stiff competitive prices negatively affected Fibrant's ability to reach its subscription goals.

In 2014, two bond rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, downgraded the bond rating for the city, citing financial struggles with the Fibrant network as a major factor in the decision. As Moody’s wrote, the city’s reduced bond rating from Aa2 to A3...

“...primarily incorporates the city's outsized enterprise risk associated with its broadband enterprise (Fibrant), with considerable operating pressure should the Fibrant continue to underperform.” 

Moody's also based its rating on the city's decision to redirect $7.6 million from its sewer and water enterprise fund to support the network. The investor service described the city's situation as "a narrowed but still acceptable cash position for the water & sewer fund."

Moody's decision to downgrade, we should note, came after a decision by Standard & Poor to upgrade, which sheds some light on the fragile and complicated bond rating process.

In 2011, North Carolina was also a battleground for TWC's intense lobbying efforts to block initiatives like Fibrant through state legislation. TWC managed to push through a restrictive bill that negatively impacted municipal networks, including Fibrant, by limiting its ability to expand.

Nevertheless, Fibrant has slowly and steadily added customers bringing subscribership to 3,000 in the summer of 2014 and in December reported that 3,200 customers took Fibrant service. By that time, Fibrant was already offering gigabit service for around $100 per month, having upgraded top tier customers to gigabit symmetrical speeds with no rate increase.

According to Winrich, the switch to even faster speeds was not as difficult as one might expect:

"We changed out our router and realized we could actually bump this up, and be the first city in the world to do it. And we were just scratching our heads going, ‘really, we’re going to be the first ones?’ And we kept checking with everyone we knew, and they said ‘we don’t know of anybody.’ So, we just jumped all over it and it was really very easy to do. Surprisingly easy to do."

Rates will vary but will cost around $400 per month, approximately $100 per month higher than the 2 Gbps residential service recently announced by Comcast. In other words, 25 percent higher for 5 times the speed with the added bonus of reliability from a local provider that cares about the welfare of its community.

An increasing number of communities are considering the benefits of municipal networks and places with 1 Gbps offerings have an even greater advantage. The ability to offer 10 Gbps lets businesses know that Fibrant has an entrepreneurial approach just as their business customers do; Salisbury is positioning itself and the region for the future:

“This whole area could be so vibrant, and Salisbury would be in the center of it,” [Winrich] says.

Gig City Wilson Helps Local Companies Thrive

The story of how Wilson's municipal fiber network, Greenlight, won over one of its strongest critics illustrates how community networks support and benefit local businesses. Tina Mooring is the Manager of Computer Central in Wilson and was an opponent of the city building a fiber optic network to provide a choice beyond the incumbent cable and DSL companies, both of which were national carriers.

"We were fearful," says Mooring, when asked about her feelings when the City of Wilson first announced its plan to build out a community-wide fiber to the home network. Reselling DSL connections leased from the incumbent telephone company was Computer Central's bread and butter. "We repaired computers and we resold DSL...and we were supposed to take a ‘leap of faith' that the City did not want to put us out of business." Mooring was outspoken in her belief that Wilson was taking the wrong step.

But after a few years passed by, Mooring's feelings about the municipal broadband network changed. Because of Greenlight, Tina's company found new opportunities in offering new services with the greatly enhanced connectivity. In going to conferences and speaking with her clients, she was repeatedly asked if Computer Central could offer services she did not know existed: large data backup services, cloud services, and disaster recovery. Full document and file image backups meant accessing the kind of bandwidth, particularly upstream, that just was not available in the community from the slower cable and DSL connections. Greenlight gave her business plenty of new opportunities:

"I'd say our revenues have increased from 30 and 100 percent over last year's" because of Greenlight's next-generation connections. Computer Central's clients access the upstream and downstream gigabit symmetrical capacity that Greenlight offers throughout the community and her company supplies the value added services on top of that internet pipe: data backup services, various hosting and managed services, security and disaster recovery. Mooring has switched 23 customers in Wilson County to Greenlight because these private sector businesses wanted the hosting and data disaster recovery services they otherwise could not access.

Tina's voice grew serious when she explained one example of how meaningful these new services are to businesses in Wilson. "We had a big tornado go through...everyone was hit including the car dealership across the street from my office. Cars were upside down and thrown down the street. But because of Greenlight's fiber capacity, I was able to get the dealership" right back on its feet. Time is money, and Greenlight, she says, "is very fast."

Computer Central banner

Mooring noted how her business suffers from North Carolina's state law that limits Greenlight's service area to only Wilson County. (As of the writing of this article, the FCC voted to preempt that state law, but the state of North Carolina has sued the FCC in an effort to reverse the order and prevent North Carolina municipalities from providing gigabit broadband services.)

"It's the law itself that's bad for the private sector ... it is hurting the private sector," she explained. "All my clients" in the six counties surrounding Wilson would benefit if Greenlight could serve them." Mooring adds, "I have CPA clients who tell me about their clients asking them: ‘When can they get Greenlight,' when they hear what my CPA accomplishes with our services." CPAs, medical offices, supply houses with medical offices, clients who need metro-ethernet connections, small businesses and small municipalities all would benefit from gaining access to Greenlight" she emphasized. "Right now they are limited on the services that we can provide them due to bandwidth constraints of the current incumbent providers."

Finally, Tina emphasized that access to world class broadband speed is just part of the picture. According to Ms. Mooring, "It's also an issue about the efficiency, the responsiveness, and the customer service... you know who you are doing businesses with because your families have known each other for decades." She noted the difficulty she experiences just to get a call returned from the large local incumbents serving the community. "There is much more latency...and like I said, lost time is lost money," she added. "I want Greenlight to grow, so Computer Central can grow."

Community networks like Greenlight create entrepreneurial opportunities for local businesses like Computer Central to boost local economies. Firms like Computer Central can help other area businesses be more efficient and competitive – but they need to have an infrastructure provider in town that is providing high capacity, reliable connectivity and excellent customer service.

Center for Public Integrity Covers Big Telecom Attacks on Munis

The Center for Public Integrity recently published an excellent article worth sharing. In "How big telecom smothers city-run broadband," Allan Holmes describes the money-for-infleunce machine at the state level, connects the dollars, and reveals bedfellows. The article is part of a series investigating the political power of big cable and telecom companies.

If you are a regular at MuniNetworks.org or any other news source covering telecommunications, you are familiar with the renewed push to restore local telecommunications authority that began in January of this year. Holmes provides a little background on the court case that inspired FCC Chairman Wheeler to publicly state that the agency is serious about restoring local authority.

Since those developments, an increasing number of journalists have reported on how we came to have barriers to municipal networks in some 20 states. The revived interest has further revealed that state legislatures are big benefactors of campaign contributions from cable and telecom leaders. "Think tanks" aimed at protecting industry giants and conservative millionaires prove to be at the heart of this payola. Holmes does an excellent job of simplifying the web of political influen$e that dooms millions of people to dial-up, outdated DSL, and aging cable infrastructure.

Holmes follows the story of Janice Bowling, a state senator from Tennessee representing the district that is home to LightTUBe in Tullahoma. When she introduced a bill to allow LightTUBe to expand to serve surrounding communities, she did so because:

…I believe in capitalism and the free market. But when they won’t come in, then Tennesseans have an obligation to do it themselves.

When it appeared the bill might get some traction:

That’s when Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T’s Tennessee operations, leaned toward her across the table in a conference room next to the House caucus leader’s office and said tersely, “Well, I’d hate for this to end up in litigation,” Bowling recalls.

Holmes delves into the Herculean efforts by incumbents to quash municipal network projects in other communities, such as Lafayette, Louisiana. Millions of dollars have been spent on lobbying and lawsuits instead of upgrades to improve services or connect more potential customers.

For the next three years, Lafayette spent $4 million responding to three lawsuits and subsequent appeals from BellSouth, which AT&T bought in 2006, and Cox.

The article addresses the fact that better connectivity leads to better economic development. This is only one of many stories from Tullahoma:

Agisent Technologies Inc., which provides online records management for police departments and city jails, moved to Tullahoma in 2011 because it needed a fast reliable broadband network that had a backup if the connection failed, said David Lufty, the company’s president.

Charter and AT&T couldn’t offer redundancy, but LightTUBe could.

“Since we’ve been here, we haven’t had more than five minutes of downtime in almost three years,” Lufty said.

Holmes compares Tullahoma, where job growth outpaces the state average, to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fayetteville, struggles to beat down unemployment. All the while existing fiber resources that could be used for local business and residents sits untapped due to a 2011 state law. When a Fayetteville Senator tried to exempt his community through legislative process, he was personally attacked in the Chambers. Fayetteville did not get its exemption.

For Steven Blanchard, chief executive of Fayetteville’s Public Works Commission, prohibiting Fayetteville residents from using the fiber network that’s already there doesn’t make sense.

“Why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell fiber if it runs by everyone’s house?” Blanchard said. “They are already paying for the fiber to be there, so why not allow them use it for telephone and Internet and capture back a lot of the cost they put in to have it there?”

The article offers some powerful graphics comparing services, state laws, and political influence dollars.

A must read! Don't miss it!

Understanding the Wilson and Chattanooga FCC Petitions - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 110

Given the exciting development of the FCC opening comment on petitions from Wilson, NC and Chattanooga, TN to restore local authority to their states, Lisa and I decided to take over this week's podcast of Community Broadband Bits.

We talk about the petitions, some background, and interview Will Aycock from Wilson's Greenlight Gigabit Network and Danna Bailey from Chattanooga's EPB Fiber network.

We finish with some instructions on how you can comment on the record. The Coalition for Local Internet Choice also has commenting instructions and some sample comments.

Read a transcript of this show, episode 110, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Global CIO: Consider the Benefits of Community Broadband Networks

Publication Date: 
June 2, 2011
Author(s): 
Jonathan Feldman
Publication Title: 
Information Week

Information Week has alerted Chief Information Officers (CIOs) that they need to pay attention to community broadband networks. Jonathan Feldman's column explains "What North Carolina's Broadband Battlefield Means to You."

The lessons have little to do with North Carolina and everything to do with the future of broadband Internet access. Community networks offer higher speed, more reliable, and more affordable connections to businesses and other entities than incumbent operators.

Feldman opens with a North Carolina business owner emailing him about wanting to duplicate Chattanooga's amazing broadband options and futuristic smart grid. Too bad North Carolina's Legislature just passed a bill to effectively prohibit NC towns from doing that.

MuniNetworks.org frequently decries the lack of choices among service providers, so it is gratifying to see Feldman make the same point:

Those of us who approve telecom budgets, whether in North Carolina or other states, know there really isn't a broadband marketplace. In contrast, we can choose among 50 providers of Web hosting services, and they're all trying to differentiate themselves based on quality and features. THAT'S a marketplace. What exists today in broadband telecom is essentially a choice between the telco and the region's cable operator.

And further on, a strong endorsement for communities that have made public broadband investments:

Unless you're a telecom carrier, you should be interested in doing business in a region where the government is building out next-generation broadband infrastructure. Whether you work for a large business that requires fiber optic capabilities (or "lambdas," which are virtual fiber pipes), or whether you simply need IP service, the lower price/performance levels of such regions are highly attractive.

Be aware of the telecom regulatory environment in any state your company is expanding into, especially as other states follow North Carolina's example. It may not be a make or break consideration, but it's one that you should bring up with your board when discussing site selection.

Feldman notes that these networks are not easy to build (a point that resonates with us - communities build these networks because they have to, not because they want to).

This is an excellent column, one we hope resonates with the many businesses that need faster, more reliable, and affordable access to the Internet. When massive companies like Time Warner Cable lobby state legislatures to preempt local authority to build networks, they are taking aim at all residents and local businesses. Businesses should recognize the benefits of breaking the duopoly that controls a key input for all commerce in the 21st century.

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Remember Michael Tiemann's letter to Governor Perdue, begging her not to let Time Warner Cable's anti-muni broadband bill become law (she instead agreed with Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and AT&T that they should control the future of IT in North Carolina). In that letter, he described the difficulty of working with TWC:

On Sunday May 15th you may have read about our latest investment in North Carolina, Manifold Recording. This was the feature story in the Arts & Living section, and the top right-hand text box on the front page. One of the most difficult and expensive line-items in this multi-million dollar project was securing a broadband link to the site in rural Chatham County. I spent more than two years begging Time Warner to sell me a service that costs 50x more than it should, and that's after I agreed to pay 100% of the installation costs for more than a mile of fiber.

Community networks are pro-business and it is long past time businesses should recognize their advantages. Let's hope we can make some progress in this area.

Poignant Videos from North Carolina H129 Legislation

Though the North Carolina fight is over, I wanted to include these two videos in our archive in case they are useful to those in the future who will undoubtedly cover the same ground.

One is the excellent local news video asking about the role of lobbyists and political contributions on the laws that get passed and the other captures an important moment from debates in the Legislature - thanks to NC Policy Watch for posting.

The first video is no longer available.

Video: 
See video
See video