What’s Standing Between Rural North Carolina and Reliable Internet Service? | North Carolina | Indy Week
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What’s Standing Between Rural North Carolina and Reliable Internet Service? 

When it comes to public infrastructure, Wilson, North Carolina, has long been ahead of the curve.

In the early 1900s, when electricity providers couldn't be bothered to extend service to rural areas, Wilson's leaders invested in a city-owned utility so that residents could enjoy lights and power equivalent to what the folks in the big cities were getting. (Today, it sends electricity to four neighboring counties.) And in 1999, Wilson constructed a new dam that dramatically expanded the capacity of its Buckhorn Reservoir, securing its water supply for a hundred years into the future.

"This kind of investment is a constant theme in our history," says Will Aycock. "Once Buckhorn was built, our public officials started looking at what the next priority should be. And they quickly identified broadband Internet as an essential need moving forward."

Aycock is the general manager of Greenlight, the community broadband network Wilson debuted in 2008, after years of unsuccessful attempts to forge partnerships with local cable and telecom companies to improve service networks in the area. With Greenlight, Wilson was tackling an issue faced by rural communities all across the United States.

"If you're a big, corporate Internet provider, the profits are in the cities," says Christopher Mitchell, coauthor of "North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," a new report by the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "It's the same dynamic that necessitated electric co-ops a hundred years ago: it's expensive to extend infrastructure out to rural areas where there's not a significant concentration of customers. So AT&T and Time Warner Cable rationally invest instead in urban areas. You just can't rely on the profit motive to bring good infrastructure to rural areas."

With Greenlight up and running, Wilson residents—as well as its employers and government agencies—received Internet and cable services with greater speed and reliability than what was being offered by CenturyLink, the primary provider in the area. Neighboring counties—many of the same ones that already enjoy the electricity services Wilson provides—were lining up, eager to get Greenlight extended to their communities.

Then the legislature stepped in.

In 2011, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink lobbied the newly Republican-led General Assembly to pass a law limiting the authority of local governments to build networks. The bill, HB 129, passed.

Legislators from both sides of aisle supported HB 129. Marilyn Avila, a Republican representing Wake County, sponsored the bill. Campaign finance reports show that Avila has received over $20,000 from Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink since 2010. A cosponsor of HB 129, Democrat William Wainwright, received over $13,000 from those three companies before his death in 2012. Another Democratic cosponsor, Becky Carney, has received $12,000 from AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and CenturyLink since 2008. The fourth cosponsor, Julia Howard, a Republican representing Forsyth, received $6,000 from those companies prior to her vote.

After the law passed, Wilson, along with a few other governments that had already developed their own networks, was allowed to continue operating Greenlight. But it was prohibited from extending its services beyond Wilson County. The city subsequently petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for a preemption of the state law. In March 2015, the FCC ruled in its favor. Citing "state-level red tape" and laws passed "due to heavy lobbying support by incumbent broadband providers," FCC chairman Tom Wheeler noted that "the area's top employers all rely on the community broadband network, new companies have located in Wilson because of its network, and residents and businesses in five surrounding counties are all pleading for access to this gigabit-speed connectivity. ... The issue is simple: these communities want to determine their own path."

Victory in hand, Wilson immediately began running broadband services to Pinetops, in Edgecombe County, and to Vick Family Farms, an employer of three hundred people in Nash County that relies on a variety of high-speed automated processes to do its business.

In August, though, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC had exceeded the authority granted it by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allows the commission to preempt state laws it determines stand in the way of broadband expansion. That meant that, as of October 28, Wilson was once again barred from expanding beyond Wilson County. It also had to shut off the broadband access it had extended to schools, public buildings, and two hundred residential and commercial customers in Pinetops, and flip off the switch to Vick Family Farms.

Reached by the INDY, Vick Family Farms sales manager Charlotte Vick said the company did not wish to discuss its plans about what it will do without Greenlight. But in a separate statement, Vick said: "Our entire operation runs on the Internet. We are desperate for both a short-term and long-term solution. We can't grow without broadband."

A short-term solution arrived on October 20, one week before the cutoff date. The Wilson City Council voted to continue providing broadband (but not cable) to Pinetops and Vick Family Farms free of charge for up to six months. (Since Greenlight won't be charging for the service, it doesn't violate the appeals court ruling.) The council's action was undergirded by a commitment by state representatives Susan Martin and Harry Brown to draft a bill in the 2017 session that will allow Greenlight to reconnect its broadband to Pinetops and Vick Family Farms.

Martin, a Republican representing Wilson and Pitt counties, says she doesn't foresee a repeal of the existing law, but "possibly some adjustments." "I believe there may be a need to change some of the existing language to better support public-private partnerships," Martin says.  

State Representative Graig Meyer, D-Orange and Durham, tells the INDY he's been working with Representative Josh Dobson, a Republican in McDowell County, to get rural lawmakers on board with finding ways to expand rural broadband. "We're looking at a whole range of options, one of which would be for the state to make a huge economic investment in last-mile service all across North Carolina," Meyer says.

Martin says she's not so sure about government-run broadband, though.

"The concern over taxpayer-funded systems competing with the private sector is a valid concern, and, while I was not in the legislature at the time, I certainly understand the reason the legislation was put in place," she says.

In Pinetops, where residents are literally connected to a well-functioning fiber network that the state now says they can't use, many view such free-market ideals from a different angle.

"CenturyLink is the only other provider here, and at my home their speeds are five times slower than what I was getting with Greenlight," says Suzanne Coker Craig, a Pinetops town commissioner. "It's slow, unreliable, and when it drops out—which it frequently does—it takes several days to get your complaint resolved with customer service. All we want is the choice of having better access."

This article appeared in print with the headline "404 Error."

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