The following stories have been tagged state laws ← Back to All Tags

Rural Tennessee Economy: Digital Divide, Connectivity Chasm

Rural folks without fast, affordable, reliable Internet access face challenges with common tasks such as doing homework, completing college courses, or running a small business. Although Tennessee has an entrepreneurial spirit, a large swath of the state's rural residents and businesses don't have the connectivity they need to participate in the digital economy. A September article in the Tennessean looks deeper at the state's digital divide between urban and rural areas.

National Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have failed to make good on promises made over recent decades to bring high-quality Internet access to the entire country, both urban and rural. Several telephone cooperatives and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are already actively investing in better Internet access to improve rural Tennessee’s economy.

The Tennessean Perspective

The newspaper the Tennessean laid out much of the connectivity problem in the "Volunteer State." Tennessee may have excellent Internet access statewide, but the urban and rural divide remains. According to a Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development's report, only 2 percent of all urban residents do not have access to broadband. The FCC defines it as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. That number climbs in rural areas, where one out of three residents does not have broadband access. 

Speed Is Not The Only Problem

Some folks simply have no Internet connection. For example, Deborah Bahr drove 30 minutes for Wi-Fi at Bojangles (Chicken and Biscuit) or visited a friend’s house a few miles away. Bahr used to run a coffee shop, leaving the Wi-Fi on continuously so local community college students could work on homework overnight in the parking lot. Bahr’s town borders Cocke County, an economically distressed area where almost 30 percent of residents are below the poverty level. 

A state law that prevents cities from expanding telecommunications services to neighboring rural areas hampers local communities’ efforts to bridge the rural-urban divide. The Tennessean article noted that the city of Clarksville has access to a Gigabit (1,000 Mbps), but in nearby Houston County, 99 percent of residents do not have broadband access. Clarksville has high-speed connectivity because the community has CDE Lightband, a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network that offers a range of affordable Internet access speeds, including a Gigabit package.

logo-clarkesville-cde-tn.jpg

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, in speaking with the Tennessean, aptly summarized the dilemma that many face:

“Do we want private enterprise to compete with the government? I don’t think that’s government’s role. Our goal is to provide services people can’t get on their own. But that’s the sticky part. This is a service that people in some places in the state can’t get on their own.”

USDA #RuralMade, More Than Ag

Those rural areas with high-speed connectivity in Tennessee often have their local telephone cooperative to thank. Formed by farmers years ago with support from the federal government, these cooperatives brought the first telephone lines out to rural Tennessee. Although fiber networks in rural areas have a high-cost, many of Tennessee’s rural telephone cooperatives have built them. 

A few, such as Highland Telephone Cooperative and Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative, relied on support from the USDA to build high-speed FTTH networks. In Tennessee alone the USDA has already invested $236 million for telecommunication projects. For more information on USDA’s multi-million dollar investments in Tennessee, check out the USDA #RuralMade Tennessee Fact Sheet.

These projects are recognized as supporting all aspects of the rural economy from manufacturing to healthcare. According to the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development's report, 24 percent of Tennessee’s households run a business from home with 14 percent operating a business exclusively from their home. That same study found that 43 percent of all new jobs are enabled by broadband.

The rural economy needs high-speed connectivity to move forward. In the Tennessean article, Bahr perfectly encapsulated this:

"I want people around here ... to see themselves as entrepreneurs and real stakeholders," she said. "It could help them start their own businesses."

Short Policy Report on Munis and Education From ECS

Digital learning initiatives for K-12 grades and online coursework for college programs both require high-speed connectivity in school and at home. Policymakers cannot overlook this issue when discussing municipal networks.

The Education Commission of the States addressed connectivity in the classroom and at home in a short policy report, entitled Inhibiting Connection: State policy impacting expansion of municipal broadband networks in September 2016. 

Inside the Report

Co-authors Lauren Sisneros and Brian Sponsler provide an overview of how municipal network issues intersect with state education goals. The paper covers the major arguments for and against municipal networks as well as current state laws restricting those networks:

"As state education policymakers explore options to support postsecondary access and success, they may be well served to consider their states’ policy addressing municipal broadband networks."

They also highlight our Community Networks Initiative as a resource for policymakers to access fact sheets, case studies, and videos. 

Read the entire policy report on the Education Commission of the States' website

For more information on connectivity in schools in general, check out our Institutional Networks page.

Estes Park, CO, Moving Ahead One Year After Opt Out Vote

Estes Park, Colorado, recently moved into the design engineering phase as it considers how to bring high-quality connectivity to businesses and residents.

One Step At A Time

With a $1.37 million grant from the Energy Mineral Impact Assistance Fund, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) is providing the funding to proceed with the engineering phase. Larimer Emergency Telephone Authority (LETA) is providing additional grant funding to extend the project further to include a wider geographic area for 911 and public safety purposes.

This phase of the project should be complete by next summer and will result in a shovel-ready plan. At that time, the Town Board will consider the information and decide how to proceed. The goal is to develop a network to make Gigabit per second (1,000 Mbps) capacity available to the Estes Park Light and Power service area.

So Far, So Good

Last fall, 92 percent of those voting on the issue chose to opt out of SB 152, the restrictive state law that prevents Colorado local governments from offering telecommunications services or advanced services or partnering with private partners to do so. Since then, they have hired a consultant to draft a feasibility study and examine model business options.

The community’s municipal electric utility already has fiber in place, and has the personnel, knowledge, and significant assets to ease the operation and management of a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network utility. The consulting firm estimated that, if the city chooses to deliver services themselves, they should focus on Internet access rather than adding video and voice to the list of services. Estimates for the project are approximately $27 - $30 million.

For video of the community's Project Stakeholder Kickoff Presentations, check out their Broadband Initiative page.

NC Rural Electric Cooperatives Teach Model Collaboration

Throughout the October Broadband Communities Magazine conference, folks kept repeating this sentiment: some partnerships are smooth and others have rough patches. At the conference, we heard from several electric cooperatives who had partnered with other cooperatives to provide next-generation connectivity to their communities.

We specifically want to highlight the work of two North Carolina electric cooperatives: Lumbee River EMC and Blue Ridge Mountain EMC. They were both included in our report North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Each co-op took the bold step of building a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network throughout sparsely populated regions. At the conference, we were able to learn first-hand about their experiences.

Despite the Distance: Lumbee River EMC & HTC

HTC Chief Executive of Marketing Brent Groome described how the two cooperatives collaborated despite being nearly an hour away from each other. Their work together has involved a commitment to similar values and dedication to improving rural communities. (Lumbee River EMC’s representative was unable to attend the conference as much of the service territory had suffered flooding from the recent hurricane.)

Lumbee River EMC’s entry into Internet service brought fiber connectivity to southeastern North Carolina. The co-op provides electricity to more than 50,000 members. In 2010, the USDA provided Lumbee River EMC with nearly $20 million in funding to install fiber. A state law, however, imposes certain restrictions on electric co-ops and USDA funding. The electric co-op had to find another company with the drive and expertise to provide Internet service.

HTC, also known as Horry Telephone Cooperative, may be far from Lumbee River EMC’s boundaries, but shares the same commitment to community. The electric co-op reached out to HTC in 2013 while completing construction of the FTTH network. Lumbee River EMC had reached out to three other telephone companies, but eventually landed on HTC. After working out an Indefeasible Right of Use (IRU), HTC set to work and signed up the first customer in 2014. Although at times the co-ops had tension, they are both now focused on providing service to rural communities.

Borders And Blue Ridge Mountain EMC 

While HTC and Lumbee River EMC were learning to collaborate, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC had already built its own network and been involved in multiple partnerships. The co-op's Director for Economic Development Erik Brinke described how the service territory’s many challenges required the electric co-op to team up with other organizations.

Blue Ridge Mountain EMC's service territory runs along the border between Georgia and North Carolina. The cooperative’s 40,000 members are widely dispersed throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains. The terrain also made fiber deployment difficult, but it did not dissuade the electric co-op.

In 2002, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC brought fiber connectivity to the schools. Then in 2006, the co-op started the process of building their own FTTH network. Recently, the electric cooperative decided to partner with the Ellijay Telephone Company (ETC) to also provide voice and video services over the FTTH network. This was not an entirely new partnership. 

logo-north-georgia-network.PNG

Blue Ridge Mountain EMC had already collaborated with ETC, and several other neighboring organizations, to create the North Georgia Network. The group featured county governments and other electric cooperatives. With funding from several federal programs, they built a middle mile fiber network, connecting many rural schools and libraries that previously had shoddy service. The middle mile network improved connectivity for the whole region.

Cooperatives Overcome State Challenges

Several states, however, have legislation that can create complications for electric cooperatives' FTTH projects. For instance, the 1999 North Carolina law requires that electric cooperatives form a separate subsidiary that cannot receive financing from the USDA or the RUS (two common sources of cooperative funding). To navigate such challenges, Lumbee River EMC and Blue Ridge Mountain EMC had to collaborate with others who shared their values. Now, the electric co-op members have access to affordable, high-speed Internet service.

Voices From Colorado's Local Authority Sweep On PRX

Colorado voters overwhelmingly reclaimed local authority in 26 counties and municipalities on Tuesday, November 8th. The total number of Colorado communities that have now reclaimed local authority is 95.

Citizens chose to opt out of state law SB 152, which prevented local governments from offering telecommunication services or advanced services to the general public. The law also bars them from partnering with the private sector and since 2008, a growing number of communities have put the question on the ballot. 

We reached out to Sallie Clarke, County Commissioner in El Paso County and Brian Waldes, Director of Finance and Information Technology in Breckenridge for comment on their communities’ ballot measures; both passed with hearty margins. We also touched base with Virgil Turner who is the Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement in Montrose, which passed a similar initiative in 2014.

We’ve put together their comments and some information about SB 152 in audio form. The story runs for 4:37.

Hear the story on PRX...

Read more about the recent election results and how all 26 communities chose to opt out, as well as see a map and details on the results.

Madison Starts Muni Fiber Effort, Considers Citywide Effort - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 227

The second-largest city in Wisconsin and the home of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is pursuing a path-breaking municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) strategy. They have already started by deploying fiber to several low-income neighborhoods and working with local ISP ResTech to offer services.

Madison CIO Paul Kronberger joins us for Community Broadband Bits episode 227 to discuss their plan. We start by discussing how they decided to deploy FTTH as a digital divide strategy. Like more and more of the communities considering this approach, Madison does not have a municipal electric utility.

We also discuss how Madison plans to deal with the state law that limits municipal fiber network investments and why Madison has decided to work with a private provider even though the city will retain ownership of the network. Read more of Madison coverage here.

Read the transcript of the show here.

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

This show is 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

El Paso County, CO, Commissioner Urges "Yes" On Local Authority

This has been a “loud” general election. The candidates, the campaign ads, and the supporters have all blasted their messages to voters in every state, drowning out some initiatives that are equally important. In Colorado, 26 local governments are asking voters to decide whether or not to opt out of SB 152, the state’s restrictive law passed in 2005 that looted local telecommunications authority.

In addition to seven counties, 19 municipalities have the issue on the ballot. Most of them use similar language from years past, when dozens of Colorado local governments presented the same question to voters.

El Paso County

There are about 664,000 people in the county, with approximately 456,000 living in the county seat of Colorado Springs. Rural residents and businesses typically struggle to obtain Internet access. County Question 1A reads:

Without increasing taxes, shall El Paso County have the authority to provide, or to facilitate or partner or coordinate with service providers for the provision of, “advanced (high-speed internet) service,” “cable television service,” and “telecommunications service,” either directly, indirectly, or by contract, to residential, commercial, nonprofit, government or other subscribers, and to acquire, operate and maintain any facility for the purpose of providing such services, restoring local authority and flexibility that was taken away by Title 29, Article 27, Part 1 of the Colorado Revised Statutes? 

Recently, El Paso County Board of Commissioners chairwoman Sallie Clarke published a guest column in the Colorado Springs Business Journal and the Gazette urging voters to support the measure. She noted that, even thought the initiative is important to the community, the local press has been quiet about the measure. With media filled by the Clinton/Trump race, there is little room for anything else, but she spells out why El Paso County needs to opt out of SB 152.

Staying Competitive

Clarke notes that dozens of other Colorado communities have already voted to opt out of SB 152. So far, 69 municipalities and counties have opted out. A few, including Longmont and Glenwood Springs, chose to opt out years ago and have already shown how to take advantage of publicly owned infrastructure to improve quality of life. Some, such as Centennial, are moving ahead with publicly owned infrastructure and partnerships with the private sector.

According to Clarke, El Paso County also has its sights set on working with private providers:

Initiative 1A permits, by public vote, an opt-out provision that allows commercial providers to tap into El Paso County’s existing or planned fiber and create partnership opportunities which are currently unavailable due to the restrictions imposed by state government. The measure restores local control over the future of our technology needs and resident accessibility, especially evident in today’s changing cyber world.

ballot-box.jpg

She also notes that a “yes” vote can have ancillary benefits:

1A may also serve to lower the wholesale cost of broadband supply to commercial internet service providers, making it economically feasible for residential and commercial delivery and expansion of broadband services to more remote areas. It could make faster connections possible, improving business communications.

Collaboration And Opportunity

Clarke notes that several local communities in El Paso County and nearby Teller County are also voting on the opt out measure and considering ways to improve local connectivity. She writes that recent safety concerns have contributed to the county’s decision to ask voters to reclaim local authority:

Commissioners said, during the discussion on this initiative, that the lack of high-speed data and cellular communications were challenges during both the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires. It just makes sense that if public entities are already building the “middle mile” infrastructure for public safety purposes, private companies should be able to use excess capacity to make it more efficient to extend broadband services. If those fiber optic lines to its facilities and those lines have excess capacity, it is more efficient for private providers to tie into those lines and build out service to homes and businesses.

Constituents in some rural areas of El Paso County have no Internet access because there is no middle mile close enough to make last mile investment worth their while. Like many of the other communities that voted to opt out of SB 152 in the past, El Paso County may not have solid plans in place, but they know they can't create those solid plans until after November 8th.

A “yes” vote on 1A is a vote for local partnership opportunities and incentives to provide high-speed Internet services for the benefit of our citizens.

Pinetops Threatened by Hurricane and NC Legislature - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 226

Pinetops, a town of about 1,300 outside Wilson, North Carolina, is suffering a double calamity as Hurricane Matthew has left floods and incredible damage in its wake. Less natural but no less frustrating is the unforced error by the North Carolina Legislature in effectively prohibiting municipal broadband networks.

This week, we have a doubleheader interview with Will Aycock, the General Manager of Wilson's fiber-optic Greenlight service, and Suzanne Coker Craig, a local business owner and town council member. They talk discuss the devastation from the hurricane and the threat from the town's only broadband provider being forced to leave town by an ill-conceived state statute.

We often talk about how important modern Internet networks are, but the Pinetops reaction to this storm is a stirring reminder of how true that is. Whether it was as the hurricane approached, hit, or left town, local leadership had to continue fighting to retain Wilson's Internet service because it is that important to them.

Fortunately, Wilson has announced that it will not cut off Pinetops as expected. Instead, it will offer free service, which is not prohibited by current law. Wilson is generously giving the state six months to fix the law so Pinetops is not economically harmed by losing high quality Internet access.

Read the transcript of the show here.

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

This show is 28 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 224

This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. ILSR research associate and MuniNetworks.org 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 MuniNetworks.org, 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 ILSR.org and MuniNetworks.org. 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 ILSR.org and MuniNetworks.org 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 MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow MuniNetworks.org 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 ILSR.org. 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.

Wilson To Offer Greenlight To Pinetops At No Charge

The town of Pinetops, North Carolina, has a six-month reprieve.

On October 20, the Wilson City Council voted to continue to provide telephone and Internet access to customers outside of Wilson County, which includes Pinetops, for an additional six months at no charge. As we reported earlier, the City Council had been backed into a corner by state law, which would force them to discontinue Wilson’s municipal Greenlight service, or risk losing their exemption entirely.

In August, the Sixth Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the FCC decision to preempt North Carolina’s state law that prevented Greenlight from serving nearby Pinetops. When Hurricane Matthew struck Pinetops, however, the Wilson community could not fathom piling yet another burden - lack of high-quality Internet access - on the struggling rural community.

"We Cannot Imagine..."

After examining the law and reaching out to state leaders, Wilson’s elected officials chose to provide services at no charge while state legislators work to change the current harmful state law. Once again, a community that offers publicly owned connectivity proves that there is more to the venture than profit. From a Wilson press release:

"Our broadband utility has always been about bringing critical infrastructure to people, improving lives and communities,” said Grant Goings, Wilson City Manager. “We cannot imagine being forced to disconnect people and businesses that need our services. We are thankful that, in partnership with our phone service provider, we have identified a way to keep folks connected while Rep. Martin and Sen. Brown work to fix this broken State law."

For more on the situation in Pinetops, read about how high-quality Internet has improved economic development and how the Vick Family Farm, a large local employer, depends on Greenlight for operations. You can also hear from Suzanne Coker Craig, a local elected official and business owner, who described for us how the community quickly came to depend the service and how the state’s draconian law is sending them back in time.

More Time To Make A Change

The situation is not permanent, say Wilson's leaders, but it will give the community of Pinetops a chance to recover from Hurricane Matthew. It will also give Pinetops and Wilson the opportunity to organize local residents and businesses and to work with Sen. Brown and Rep. Martin who will pursue legislative changes in Raleigh.

The community has already started to get organized with a Facebook page and an online petition you can sign to show your support.

Read the rest of the Wilson Press release on the City Council decision here.