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Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 224

This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. ILSR research associate and writer, H.R. Trostle, joins the show to discuss the recent report on North Carolina's connectivity and the importance of cooperatives. Listen to this episode here.

H.R. Trostle: The telephone cooperative are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Recently, we released a report focusing on the availability of high-quality Internet access in North Carolina. H.R. Trostle, a research associate at the Institute and one of our authors on, analyzed data from several different sources and she's talking to Chris this week to discuss her conclusions. She and Chris, who co-authored the report with her, discovered that municipal networks and cooperatives have an important role to play in North Carolina. Take a few minutes to check out the report and check out the detailed maps that show the results of their analysis. The report is titled North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It's available at and Now here are Chris and H.R. Trostle, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, discussing in detail their recent report and their findings on Internet access in North Carolina.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broad Bits Podcast. Coming to you live today from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance offices in Minneapolis, with H.R. Trostle, the co-author of our new report on North Carolina. Welcome to the show.

H.R. Trostle: Thanks Chris, it's great to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Hannah.

H.R. Trostle: Hi.

Christopher Mitchell: I thought we would start with a broad overview of what did the report cover.

H.R. Trostle: The report covered everything from electric coops to municipalities and included telephone coops. It involved a lot of digging through a lot of FCC data.

Christopher Mitchell: What kind of data? What were we looking for?

H.R. Trostle: I looked at the FCC form 477, which is deployment data. It also includes maximum advertised upload speeds and download speeds, but it doesn't include things like pricing information.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. This has been long one of the issues that we have found infuriating is that the carriers can just say what they're offering. Maybe that's true, maybe it's not. To some extent, it's very difficult for CenturyLink to know what it can offer in rural areas, because the DSL is so poor. It varies from house to house, but they never have to disclose what they're charging for it, which really makes it difficult to make good policy around this.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, they also don't differentiate between different tiers, so it literally only tells me the maximum advertised. They may advertise that they offer 15-20 megabits a second, when in actuality you get maybe two.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. We know that that situation in Pinetops, just outside of Wilson, which we'll cover here in a few minutes, but I think one of the things that I found most interesting was that basic broadband access, which is overstated. You know, actually, why don't you just give us the numbers and facts that we're going to use from 477 data, from the FCC. Is that super accurate?

H.R. Trostle: It's not the greatest amount of accuracy. I could wish for more.

Christopher Mitchell: Is it randomly inaccurate, or is consistently inaccurate in one direction?

H.R. Trostle: It's mostly inaccurate in rural areas, because the census blocks are so large. The way the FCC's 477 is set up is each provider notes what they offer by census block. Rural areas tend to have very giant census blocks, with very few people.

Christopher Mitchell: That means that if a few people have access, maybe it's like the census block in which you have the edge of a town and you have a few people who have access, but the rest of the census block has no access. The form 477 data would suggest that everyone has access on that block.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly, even if two people have access, all twenty some people in the census block are considered as having access.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's imagine one other thing, which is to say that you have a census block in which, in the North side you have one provider's that's offering a service. In the South side, you have a different provider that's offering a service. In the middle, nobody can get anything, but we can't tell. As far as we know, I think about how that data is often interpreted. People might think there is competition in universal service in that block.

H.R. Trostle: It's actually pretty great. The FCC's form 477 specifically says that you should not try to use it to generate competition data, but everyone tries to use it to generate competition data for exactly that problem.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, but we can have a sense of at least -- The report, and the numbers in the report are a best case scenario.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, absolute best case.

Christopher Mitchell: I find it interesting, I actually thought that North Carolina has better basic broadband access than I expected. What's basic broadband access and who has access to it there?

H.R. Trostle: Basic broadband access is the FCC definition of 25 megabytes per second download and 3 megabytes per second upload speed.

Christopher Mitchell: Advertised.

H.R. Trostle: Just advertised, obviously. You might not actually get that. In fact, some areas, you can get 20 megabytes per second as a normal, affordable speed tier. Then they also offer 100 megabytes per second at some absurd price. You can't actually get broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: Because even though you could get a decent connection, maybe from a coop, I think that's what you're talking about here. You have the coop that has a plan. It's one of the rare cases in which we have an understatement of who has decent access.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: In general, 4 out of 5 people in rural North Carolina, approximately -- There's a little bit of an overstatement there, but still most people seem to have basic broadband access from one provider.

H.R. Trostle: 4 out of 5 rural residents for sure, do. Supposedly according to the data, 93% of all of North Carolina has basic broadband access.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I found interesting was that I think, when you look at the state's reaction, the state of North Carolina did their own report a few months ago. We were not really impressed with it. I think their conclusion was, "Wow, we're doing really well. Sure, we got to figure out some way of doing better, but we're doing really well." Our conclusion was that North Carolina's really not doing that well. In fact, I found interesting that when you look at their access to higher quality Internet access, you often find it's utterly lacking. You have that basic broadband tier as the maximum in a number of these rural regions, but there's nothing above that level.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, it's very, very frustrating. Especially looking at where fiber is actually available. It tends to be available in urban areas or from coops.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, so there's not a lot of what we would call private sector or private company investment in fiber in rural North Carolina.

H.R. Trostle: Not at all.

Christopher Mitchell: Which I find very interesting, because their urban areas seem to be getting more investment, on average. None of those big companies are building out to everyone, but parts of their triangle, parts of Charlotte, parts of the suburbs around there, are getting fiber optic access from Google, from AT&T, from CenturyLink. At the very least they've announced it and made it available in a few partner buildings, but there's been a lot of announcements.

H.R. Trostle: There have been a lot of announcements but there's, from what I can tell, very little actually been done.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, they might just be on their way to doing it. It might be a charitable way of reading. In part, it does seem to me, and you and I both follow these things closely. It seems to me that there is some more investment in fiber optics in urban North Carolina areas than in your average metro regions around the United States.

H.R. Trostle: For sure, I've been looking at Minnesota and Tennessee as well. Doing something similar. There is so little actual private investment in those urban areas of Tennessee and Minnesota.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. Let's move on to talking about some of the subsidies, because what I'm confused about is AT&T and CenturyLink seem to be getting a king's ransom from the Connect America fund, and yet they're not investing significantly in these areas, from what I can tell. How much are they getting?

H.R. Trostle: From the Connect America fund, AT&T's accepted about three and a half million dollars each year, to serve about 13,000 people by 2020 with not a broadband connection, but a connection of 10 megabytes per second, download speed.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's unpack this for a second, all right. Three million dollars per year for four years. Twelve million dollars?

H.R. Trostle: Just about.

Christopher Mitchell: To connect how many homes?

H.R. Trostle: To connect 13,000 in rural and under-served areas.

Christopher Mitchell: Specific areas where they do not have, according to the map, broadband access. By 2020, they will deliver a connection that's 10 megabytes down and 1 megabyte up, at a minimum.

H.R. Trostle: Yes.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, in some areas, and we'll talk about CenturyLink's numbers in a second. In some areas, I think we'll see them exceed that. I think CenturyLink will only provide that basic connection to some of their homes, but some of their homes will probably get a 40 by 5 connection or, occasionally, maybe, a gigabyte. I really doubt that, frankly, but they'll probably -- Homes that are close to the DSLAM, which, I always call it the magical device that turns your copper phone lines into an Internet provisioning system. People that are close enough will get higher speeds than 10 by 1, but AT&T seems to be really going for that minimum speed. They're just doing this wireless only product. This news really came out after our report was put to rest, but it's worth noting that AT&T seems to be really taking it seriously that they do not have to out-perform 10 by 1.

H.R. Trostle: That's what they want to do. CenturyLink, meanwhile, is getting about 10 million per year. They're going to serve 36,000 people with that same baseline.

Christopher Mitchell: I can only imagine what these coops in North Carolina could be doing with 40 million dollars a year. I find it infuriating that Uncle Sam is throwing away here, in just two companies, 52 million dollars to provide connection that would have been obsolete last year. It's really, really frustrating. Let's move on to what the coops are doing. What did you find in terms of, let's talk about the telephone cooperatives first. What are they doing in North Carolina?

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, so there are eight telephone cooperatives in North Carolina. All of them are deploying some sort of fiber for Internet service. Six have committed to serving their entire service areas, several have actually completed those projects. The map is looking so much nicer.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, it's remarkable when you see the map that you've prepared, of where fiber exists in rural North Carolina. You see these areas in the central northern part of the state, you have this big block. In the northeastern part of the state, you have this big block where it seems that every last person has access because they're served by a telephone cooperative.

H.R. Trostle: Yes, and the telephone cooperatives are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.

Christopher Mitchell: I was actually talking with a reporter and I made that exact point. The reporter was saying, "Is it surprising to you that the private sector is not getting this job done in rural North Carolina?" I was thinking, "No, it is not surprising." These are people who are served by co-ops because, for 100 years, we understand that the private sector does not do a good job providing the essential infrastructure for rural communities. The business model does not work for the way that they want it to. We have telephone coops and we have electric coops. It shouldn't be surprising that these approaches are the ones that are best serving North Carolina's rural communities.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, and North Carolina has 26 electric coops. Several have already taken steps to providing Fiber-to-the-Home or Fiber-to-the-Business. Lumbee River, Blue Ridge Mountain, they are in possibly even more sparsely populated areas than the telephone cooperatives.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, and that's not very surprising, frankly. The electric coops serve so much of the state that, on average, I can imagine -- Not even average. The electric coops serve such a large part of the state that there's just so many more opportunities for them to be serving the least dense areas. The areas that are the hardest to reach, but these electric coops have, historically, I feel like, resisted getting involved. Are you seeing that changing in your conversations with North Carolina's electric coops or, as they call them, EMCs?

H.R. Trostle: Yeah. EMCs is electric membership corporation. That conversation is really changing and part of that is the electric cooperatives are deploying fiber to communicate with their substations. They already had that as a growing part of their electrical infrastructure. Now they can actually use that for telecommunications. Previously, their infrastructure that would have been good for broadband access would have been just the poles.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, when you say communicate with the substations, I always imagine them, "Hello substation, how are you doing today?"

H.R. Trostle: "Hello world."

Christopher Mitchell: I have to think, if I'm the state of North Carolina, I should be really excited about these coops investing and trying to promote that and doing everything I can to say, "Hey, how can we make this happen more quickly?" How is North Carolina reacting? You read the report. I skimmed it, I read some sections in-depth, but the state of North Carolina's report, did they really actually recognize the way that the coops are already doing this?

H.R. Trostle: They did not recognize the growing role of coops. Not at all. The state of North Carolina didn't even really address one of the barriers to electric cooperatives. Getting involved in telecommunications. There are some restrictions how an electric cooperative can access capital from the Rural Utility Service funds and from the USDA. It's rather discouraging to investment.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so the state of North Carolina says, if you're an EMC. If you're a rural electric coop, you can not get telecom loans or grants from the Rural Utility Service to distribute those. You also can't form a subsidiary. Now there may be other ways for these EMCs to find of accessing capital and to be able to build these networks, but I just find it stunning that the state wants to say, "We're going to officially discourage you from accessing the USDA," which is the main system that has built our cooperative infrastructure system around the country. All of the electrical coops, the telephone coops, they've all depended on our rural utility service funding. North Carolina says, "Hey, you know what? You guys are investing in rural communities, but we're going to make it harder on you." It's the exact opposite of what you'd want.

H.R. Trostle: It is the complete opposite of what you want. That's not all -- Other states also discourage electric cooperative's investment. Tennessee, New Mexico, but there are work-arounds.

Christopher Mitchell: Where there's a will, there's a way, right?

H.R. Trostle: Pretty much.

Christopher Mitchell: That may not be true with some forms of municipal broadband investment, though. We've saved the biggest hot button issue for us last, which is HB129, or just H.129, depending on the system that you use in referencing it, but this is a law from 2011. We've talked about it so many times. The FCC repealed it, it came back through the 6th circuit, reinstated it, but basically North Carolina tells local governments, "You can not build broadband networks."

H.R. Trostle: North Carolina does not support municipalities building their own networks. H129 is sort of a zombie law in that it came back and has now ruined things for Highlands and Pine Tops and a few family farms that really were depending on that connectivity.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, let's talk about that. The City of Wilson, incredibly successful municipal fiber network. We've talked about them many times because they were, with Chattanooga, the two of them went to the FCC to roll back these laws. Wilson, during that period when the law was not in effect, built out to some of its neighbors that desperately needed access but did not have broadband access. This family farm in Nash County, they could not even basically run their IT systems, they couldn't be a modern packing facility because they didn't have the Internet access they needed. Wilson comes along, provides it to them, the state of North Carolina challenges the law, goes to the 6th circuit. The 6th circuit says, "The FCC does not have the authority to change that law, so the law's reinstated." Wilson's going to have to disconnect its fiber optics networks from the small community and the nearby family farms.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, Wilson had to vote to do that. They could have tried to continue service, but it would have just led to an even greater mess.

Christopher Mitchell: They would have had to shut down their entire system, ultimately. Wilson City has universal access. Wilson County has significant access, but it all would have been at risk if they tried to continue under their current laws. As this goes to air, there will be one week left, basically, of service that Wilson will be providing nearby. Then it will have to turn them off. Now, this is the part that kills me, though. The fiber optics cables, the optical network terminal devices will be on the side of the house still. I find it incredibly frustrating that people are going to have all of the things that they need to have world class Internet service in their home, but the state will say, "You can't use it for that." Wilson can use it to monitor the electrical system, to say, "Hey, how you doing?" To the substations, to communicate with the substations. It's there, but they won't be able to deliver Internet service.

H.R. Trostle: I would say it's a quirk of the law, but it's actually the entire point.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, exactly. Here's a question then, as we head toward the end and I'm done ranting about the injustice in Wilson and Pine Tops and altitude in Highlands. What is the next step? What can North Carolina do if it actually has leadership that cares about promoting rural connectivity, rather than just lining the pockets of powerful CenturyLink and AT&T, their lobbyists and their interests?

H.R. Trostle: Well, it would be really simple to repeal H129, but I don't know if that's actually ever going to happen.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, let's go a step further and say, let's assume that that got rid of it. You have some towns that move forward, more importantly, perhaps, you have the existing networks able to expand and serve their neighbors. You still have a lot of areas, I mean what do you see in terms of the electrical -- Is it feasible to think that electric coops could solve most of North Carolina's problem? A way that partnerships with the telephone coops expanding outside of their areas? I mean, is this a pipe dream or is this something that could happen?

H.R. Trostle: No, this is entirely possible. The electric coops can work with the telephone coops to provide better connectivity. They don't have to actually worry about providing the telecommunication services themselves, they can simply partner with someone who already has experience in doing that.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that we're starting to get a sense, from some of the reaction to the report, is that this is starting to happen. There is hope, I think.

H.R. Trostle: There is. It would be a little bit nicer if they could get rid of some of the restrictions on the electrical cooperatives access to capital.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and I also think, as you have the electric coops and the telephone coops doing this expansion. It must be incredibly frustrating. Let's imagine that you're just outside of the Wilkes cooperative area and the Riverfront Networks.

H.R. Trostle: RiverStreet.

Christopher Mitchell: RiverStreet Networks. You are right outside of there and you're not getting service from them. They're working with a couple of other areas nearby, but they can't build everywhere at once. North Carolina says, "Too bad, you can't get do it yourself. You have to wait until they come to you." Or something like that. I just, I think that the H129 restrictions are such a slap in the face to communities. To say, "Yeah, you're losing property value, you're losing businesses, people don't want to move in there, but you can't solve the problem yourself. You have to just hope that someone else is going to come along and solve it for you."

H.R. Trostle: Yep, even if you have the technical expertise, you're just not allowed to.

Christopher Mitchell: It runs totally contrary to everything that we believe in at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and what people and communities should be empowered to do.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: I hope that people have a chance to check out this report. I think we're going to be seeing more maps, more exciting stuff coming from Hannah, from the work that you're doing. You already prove it a little bit, Tennessee and Minnesota are in the works. I hope people stay tuned to your work.

H.R. Trostle: I hope so too.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with H.R. Trostle, our colleague and one of the authors of our recent report on connectivity in North Carolina. You can download the report at and to learn about the urban/rural digital divide and how coops and muni networks are finding ways to close the gap. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow stories on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at Thank you to the group Mojo Monkeys for their song, "Bodacious", licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

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

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

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

Download the Report

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

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

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

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

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

From The Report:

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

Download the Report

"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 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."