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Colorado Conversation: New ILSR Podcast!

In early November, voters in 26 additional Colorado communities chose to opt out of SB 152. The state’s restrictive law took away local telecommunications authority in 2005. The results in many of the towns and counties were overwhelming majorities - loud and clear in favor of local authority. Now, 95 local communities across the state have reclaimed local authority.

We covered the election results in detail on MuniNetworks.org and what those results say about local communities’ desire for better connectivity. We spoke with local community leaders. As part of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Building Local Power podcast, episode #5, Christopher and I also discussed what those results say about the desire to make connectivity choices at the local level.

Beyond Colorado...

In addition to Colorado, we also talked about local publicly owned networks in other parts of the nation and how they are changing the expectations for Internet users in urban and rural America.

We also discussed the general election results that brought Donald Trump to the presidency, specifically noting the impact that his ascension brings to local communities’ ability to provide Internet connectivity to their residents. We pondered the implications of a Trump presidency on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s mission of working across partisan lines in local communities.

We invite you to check out episode 5 of the Building Local Power podcast and check out other episodes, all highlighting the work we do at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

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.

Blair Levin Urges Repeal of North Carolina's Restrictive HB129

At a recent WRAL TechWire event, former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chief of staff Blair Levin urged North Carolina communities to seek a repeal of a state law that restricts local telecommunications authority, reports WRAL TechWire.

“When the new General Assembly returns to Raleigh, tell the assembly to tear down the law that prevents faster, cheaper broadband,” Levin said in a keynote address at the WRAL TechWire Executive Exchange in Wilson, N.C. Wilson's municipal Greenlight network is among the first in the nation to offer high-quality Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet access.  

Currently, North Carolina law HB 129 prevents Wilson from expanding its Internet access service area beyond Wilson County and discourages other communities from investing in similar infrastructure. HB 129 was the subject of a legal battle when the city of Wilson (pop. 50,000) wanted to provide Internet access to neighboring Pinetops (pop. 1,400) and other communities beyond the limitations of the state law. They challenged the law, as did Chattanooga, which faced slightly different restrictions in Tennessee.

In February of 2015, the FCC ordered that Wilson could serve communities beyond the county borders, but both states appealed, challenging the agency's authority. The federal appeals court reversed that ruling in August 2016.

Under the provisions of the North Carolina law, Wilson could lose it's exemption to offer service at all, but by temporarily providing free telephone and Internet access to Pinetops, they protect their exemption. Two state legislators have vowed to take action and try to get the state law changed during the next legislative session.

Levin Praises Wilson

TechWire reported:

Levin credited Wilson with being the bright city on hill, when eight years ago it built a broadband infrastructure because private companies weren’t interested in doing it. Wilson’s success inspired other rural areas to want to duplicate their success, but state regulations now prevent that.

Levin also praised Wilson for not accepting the status quo but finding a way to get high-speed Internet connectivity to its community.

Besides Levin’s keynote speech, the TechWire program included a live "fireside chat" about Greenlight with Wilson City Manager Grant Goings and panel discussions.  WRAL TechWire’s Executive Exchange event was titled “Building a gigabit ecosystem.” WRAL TechWire serves the North Carolina Triangle region that includes the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. 

Levin has also been a guest on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, visiting us for episode #132 to discuss private vs. public ownership and episode #37 to talk about GigU.

The Only Way To Greatness

Levin knows that the future depends on connecting everyone. From his speech:

I do not want to suggest that having a gigabit network will solve all our problems. Addressing other challenges —from climate change to quality of education to the ability to attract an educated and diverse workforce—must be part of the mix.

But at some point in the near future the kind of network you have today, one that thousands of communities wish they had, will be the new table stakes for addressing both the challenges and opportunities of this century to build a better life for ourselves, our children, and the generations to follow.

And when those generations arrive, I hope that America is still great. I hope its residents and the world will see it as a shining city on the hill that we have aspired to be since our earliest days, that Reagan so eloquently described.

Predictions about the future, as Yogi Berra usefully reminded us, are always tricky. But this prediction is safe: America will not be great if it does not have great broadband. 

Read the full text of Levin's speech, titled: "Make America Great - with Great Broadband."

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 226

This is episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Joining Christopher Mitchell are Will Aycock and Suzanne Coker Craig. They discuss the situation in Greenlight and Pinetops as well as the importance of connectivity during the recent hurricane. Listen to this episode here.

Suzanne Coker Craig: We just think it's phenomenally important to our town, to really the existence and survival of our town.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. As many of our listeners know, in February 2015, the FCC issued an order that preempted restrictive state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. The FCC's order allowed Greenlight, the municipal network developed by Wilson's electric utility, to expand its Internet access, telephone and video services outside of Wilson County. Pinetops, a small community of about 1300 residents, was connected soon after the FCC ruling and the community, its businesses and residents, finally received the high quality connectivity they needed to step into the 21st century. This last August, the order was reversed by the 6th Circuit for the US Court of Appeals. Wilson had to stop offering service to Pinetops or risk losing the exemption to the state law. In other words, stop serving Pinetops or the state would shut them down completely. In this interview, Chris talks with Will Aycock, Greenlight's General Manager, and later, Suzanne Coker Craig, a Pinetops business owner and town commissioner. Will describes a situation in the area, especially since the onset of Hurricane Matthew, which has hit Pinetops hard, and how Wilson found a way to continue to help its neighbor. Suzanne describes what it was like before the community had high quality services from Greenlight. She also describes how important the services are for the town, and how Greenlight has gone above and beyond to help the people of Pinetops. Now, here's Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight, and Suzanne Coker Craig, Pinetops' Town Commissioner and local business owner.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm starting off today talking with Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight, the municipal fiber network in Wilson, North Carolina. Welcome to the show.

Will Aycock: Thank you, Chris. Happy to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: It's great to have you back. I think a lot of people are aware that you have had a state law in the past that has prohibited you from building your network outside of the county, though you have many neighbors that would like to have it. For a period of time, the FCC preempted that law and made it so that you could expand. What did you do during that period?

Will Aycock: During that period, we offered our service to the residents of the town of Pinetops, North Carolina, over in Edgecombe County. Pinetops is a wholesale power customer of our electric utility, so we actually had fiber all the way into the community and had been helping them with building fiber even before the change in the law that allowed us to provide our broadband services. Since we already had fiber access in the community and we'd actually been working back in 2009 and 10 with the town officials down in Pinetops, to basically do the engineering studies required to go ahead and bring broadband into their community, so all that legwork had been done. When the window of opportunity presented itself, we went ahead and began providing our broadband service to their residents.

Christopher Mitchell: You guys are about 50,000 people. Pinetops is what? 1,800? It's a pretty small city.

Will Aycock: Yes, it's a very small, eastern North Carolina typical town.

Christopher Mitchell: That's very complicated, because the 6th Circuit has reinstated the law. What does that mean for Pinetops?

Will Aycock: In effect, it means that we are no longer allowed to provide telecommunications services for a fee outside of Wilson County, which puts us in the position of potentially having to disconnect or withdraw our broadband services from that community. However, as you may know, we have uncovered at least a temporary solution that hopefully will allow us to find a permanent solution to the issue.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, under the law, you have 30 days basically to stop serving them, although I think it's not really clear when that 30 days started from. In any event, you had scheduled basically the end of October to cut them off, and just last week, or as this is airing the week before, you decided to offer free service because that is allowed under the law. What made the Wilson City Council decide to do that?

Will Aycock: First and foremost, we've been working and trying to uncover essentially any opportunity to avoid withdrawing service, especially right now during this critical time for that community. As you may be aware, we're barely two weeks out from Hurricane Matthew, one of the most devastating hurricanes that's happened to this part of the world since really Floyd back in the late 1990s. Obviously, there was already an effort underway to try to figure out how to not withdraw this critical infrastructure from the residents of Pinetops. They sort of layer on this natural disaster with many of their residents living in emergency shelters, relief organizations coming in to the community, helping to get people back on their feet, all of those operations relying on the broadband network really for the essential communications behind those efforts. That really put an increased amount of weight on trying to find a solution. Our attorneys came to the realization that there was this sort of potential loophole that would allow us to at least temporarily provide broadband and voice service in the community at no charge. Obviously it's not a permanent solution, and it wouldn't be a solution at all if it were not for our private sector partners. We've actually had two of our wholesale providers that we purchase the bandwidth and dial tone from step up and they are actually offering us services for free for a limited period of time to essentially help us to bridge this gap in the community, both to give them opportunity to get back on their feet after this natural disaster, and from a broader sense, hopefully allowing us in partnership with some of our state legislators to find a permanent solution.

Christopher Mitchell: First of all, I just want to say it's really great to hear that there's multiple entities coming together to make sure that Pinetops is not left out. It's also worth noting that you were the only broadband provider in Pinetops. There is no cable. There is DSL provider, but I know a person in Pinetops and he has assured me that no one could get more than 10 megabit service, which is not broadband access and certainly would be very hard to run a business on. You pulling out would be a significant hardship. I'm just curious, if you could just briefly tell us some of the important ways that the broadband service has been essential dealing with this emergency situation.

Will Aycock: Right. One of the first things is simple communication with family members. As these residents were evacuated from their homes and they were moved into this emergency shelter there in the community, they have relative and family and friends across the nation and across the globe who want to know that they're okay. There's been some lack of communications services that we fielded the call basically saying, "Can you guys come down and set up wireless in the shelter, so that these people's devices will work and it will allow them to communicate with their family and friends across the globe, letting them know that they're okay?"

Christopher Mitchell: You noted broadband and telephone services, but there will be no cable services. This is a lifeline type of service really that you're going to be providing while we hope that the North Carolina legislature, at the very least, exempts Pinetops from the law or ideally reconsiders the entire limitation that you have to deal with.

Will Aycock: Right. Certainly our immediately priority is extending these lifeline services during this transition period, hopefully allowing the legislators to, at a minimum, as you said, provide a fix for the residents there in Pinetops and our other customers outside of Wilson County, although our goal certainly is to have all communities in this state have the option to be able to meet their own infrastructure needs as their elected officials deem appropriate.

Christopher Mitchell: I'd just like to ask you one other thing as we finish up, and that's just so people are aware, in the middle of this almost existential crisis for Pinetops with this devastation from the hurricane, you still have them prioritizing, getting down to Raleigh to argue for some relief from the state in the form of this law. I think that, just to me, it shows me how incredibly important this issue is. This isn't just about downloading Netflix. This is about the survival of a community in the modern era.

Will Aycock: Absolutely. It's been very moving to see what's going on in the community and to watch their elected leaders, their mayor and commissioners, trade duty between working at the shelters, helping to serve their citizens there, and then sort of ferrying back and forth almost a relay at Raleigh to meet with various state officials to try to advocate on behalf of their community for long term access to this infrastructure. I think seeing that play out has really highlighted for me and for many others the importance of this infrastructure in these communities.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you very much, Will, both for the call today and also for setting an example of how communities should be helping each other out to make sure that we can all thrive in this country.

Will Aycock: I appreciate it, Chris. It was great talking with you.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, I'm speaking with Suzanne Coker Craig, a town commissioner and small business owner in Pinetops, North Carolina. Welcome to the show.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Thank you very much. I appreciate being here.

Christopher Mitchell: I really appreciate you taking the time. I know that there's a lot going on there. I'm curious, if we could start just with a sense of what it was like to be a small business owner prior to getting the Wilson Internet service in Pinetops.

Suzanne Coker Craig: You kind of make do with what you have, so we were very used to dealing with slow Internet, but we didn't have any options. We made the best of it, but our Internet was pretty slow and unreliable. I spent almost 20 years living in Raleigh in the triangle before I moved back home, so I was used to a little more modern approach and still have lots of friends and family who live in Raleigh. I go up there and realize how much faster real Internet was. Customer service was terrible. You got the feeling that we were the small town dealing with the large company who really didn't care about us at all, and go through all kinds of mazes to get through to a person to talk with them if you had a problem. Generally, you were told the problem must be on your end. It was frustrating and it was slow and it was unreliable.

Christopher Mitchell: When you say unreliable, I think there's a number of people who might think, "Well, yes, my cable Internet cuts out every few months or so." I'm guessing it's significantly more unreliable for you.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Absolutely. There would be periods during every day when more than one of us were online down here at my shop, we'd both be waiting and it would be dragging. Sometimes it would just drop off. When you say people are used to that kind of thing once every couple of months, this would be about once a week that it would just drop off for no reason. It may not be off long, but just enough to interrupt what you were doing and really just got aggravating. There would be times, honestly, with a light rain, that it would just disappear for a few minutes. It was constantly your connection would drop off on your computer, and it would have to be searching for the connection again. It was much more common than I think anyone would really be used to or expect.

Christopher Mitchell: How did things change when Wilson began offering the service, the much faster Internet service?

Suzanne Coker Craig: Oh, my goodness, it was night and day. The difference with the Internet services was it was incredibly fast, and I've actually tested. I will be honest and say that I did not have a chance to hook up my business with Greenlight, I had Greenlight at my house, which is about a block away. I have it in my home but not in my business yet because I was in line to be hooked up when the court ruling came down. I'm kind of on the waiting list for my business, but I had tested my service at home versus my service here at work, and the Internet at home is five times faster. The speed was very noticeable and the service is seamless. I don't think I've had any interruptions other than probably for about 45 minutes during the hurricane a couple weeks ago.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and that's somewhat understandable.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Yes. That I don't complain about. It was noteworthy that's all the time we lost it. It's fast enough that I will routinely leave my business if I have a large file to upload or something like that and will run home and upload files and do things that I need fast, reliable Internet. I will walk a block to my house with my laptop. It's very noticeable, and people here have been incredibly excited about it. Everybody that's gotten it has loved it and has commented on how much more efficient it is, and just really, really excited about it. The fact that they had an option was also noteworthy for all of us here. We don't have to choose the only one. We have an option.

Christopher Mitchell: I have the impression that now that the town has had it and it is possibly about to be taken away that people are fighting harder than they would be if it was just a hypothetical issue, because obviously people could've been upset about this law two and three years ago, but now that they've tasted it, it seems like something's different.

Suzanne Coker Craig: It's entirely different idea because, yes, I guess when you live in a small, rural town, you get used to being left behind in things. I'm sure when the law was passed in 2011, it was one of those, "Well, they wouldn't let us get this anyway, I'm sure." That was five years ago and it wasn't quite as common for areas to have that kind of speed of Internet. Honestly, our economy has gotten even more dependent on good Internet service since then. I think the combination of those things, and yes, when you get it and you realize how good it is and then somebody wants to take it away, yes, our folks are extremely upset about this.

Christopher Mitchell: Just turning to Hurricane Matthew, can you briefly tell us the lasting impact that you've had from the storm?

Suzanne Coker Craig: Our little town of Pinetops, which is about 1300, similar to when Hurricane Floyd came through, we are almost like a little island and I'm not exaggerating this, within a half a mile of our town's borders, just about on all sides, we have significant flooding. People within our community, quite a few people lost their homes. We had others who had significant damage to their homes and were displaced for a couple of weeks at least. There's obviously still a lot of rebuilding going on and a lot of recovery efforts and those kinds of things. That situation also brought about how important it was to have good Internet. One of our churches here set up an impromptu shelter because all of this was pretty unexpected as far as the level of the flooding. One of our local churches set up a shelter and within a couple of hours of them doing that, the folks from Greenlight and Wilson were at the shelter hooking up the fellowship hall, where they had about 100 people housed, for the Wi-Fi connection. They had Wi-Fi already at the church, but it wasn't strong enough to reach the area. The folks from Greenlight hooked it up and we had quite a few people in the shelter who were Hispanic. They immediately were able to get on their phones and let people know, let their families know, that they were okay. That was a tremendous relief to a lot of folks and really made a difference. We saw immediate impact from that. Like I said, the folks from Greenlight had been here, they had serviced us very well, very quickly, and we know that we are a priority with them in the service they have given us, even through this disaster situation. There have been several situations. Especially considering that they may have to take their service away from us, and they have gone above and beyond with service calls and those kinds of things given that situation that it would be easy for them to brush us off and say, "Well, we're going to have to cut them off anyway." But they haven't and that's been a tremendous difference in the attitudes of the folks in this town as well.

Christopher Mitchell: I've met a number of people from Greenlight over the years and I've always been impressed with their character, so I'm very happy to hear that. One of the reasons I wanted to ask you about the hurricane is because I found it really powerful learning from Will that your town's leadership, in the midst of dealing with all this, was still having to go to Raleigh to plead your case to be exempted from the law that's preventing Wilson from expanding. To me, it just showed how seriously this is being taken by your town's leadership.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Absolutely. It's one of those things -- We had a meeting that Friday. The hurricane basically came in late Friday and Saturday. We had a meeting Raleigh. We thought the folks in Raleigh might call it off because of the weather but they didn't, so we got all trooped up there. Everyone, with time to go, went to Raleigh. It's that important for us. Our entire area, really, in eastern North Carolina, the small, rural areas really struggle economically and we're in one of the poorest counties in the state. It is very hard for us to attract business. It's hard for us to attract population here. This Greenlight service really gives us a considerable economic boost, and we just think it's phenomenally important to our town, to really the existence and survival of our town. We think it's that important.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to thank you for taking time out while you're in the middle of these two important issues and running a business and running a town and everything else. I think people are really going to be interested in what you have to say, so thank you for taking the time.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Thank you very much. It's my pleasure, and we will keep fighting.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight, and Suzanne Coker Craig, Pinetops' Town Commissioner and local business owner. We have plenty of coverage of Pinetops, Wilson, and Greenlight at MuniNetworks.org and we'll continue to follow developments there. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Send us your ideas for the show. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stores on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR Podcasts family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. We want to thank the group Mojo Monkeys for their song Bodacious, licensed through Creative Commons, and we want to thank you for listening to episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

Duck River Co-op Considering Rural Fiber Future

Duck River Electric Membership Corporation (DREMC) in Tennessee announced in September that it has launched a feasibility study to investigate ways to use a proposed fiber-optic network to bring better connectivity to members.

Exploring Added Value

According to the announcement, DREMC is considering investing in a fiber-optic loop to improve communications between its offices and substations. DREMC recognizes that this initial investment can be a first prudent step in considering the future of the cooperative and the vitality of rural Tennessee:

A fiber-optic loop has been proposed to connect all offices and substations, including the co-op’s emergency operations center. This project could also provide capacity for community purposes: fiber that could be leased to other parties, even Internet-to-home providers.

The broadband feasibility study will explore how the proposed fiber-optic loop might help improve connectivity in rural areas served by DREMC.

Within The Confines Of The Law

In Tennessee, electric cooperatives are prohibited from providing Internet access to residents, but DREMC still wants to use its publicly owned infrastructure for the benefit of members.

DREMC serves the areas south of Nashville. Columbia and Tullahoma are some of the more densely populated areas and have their own electric utilities, which also provide Gigabit connectivity. Rural areas outside of the cities rely on cooperatives like DREMC for electricity; the state restrictions will keep those communities in that last century for Internet access because national providers have no desire to serve them. 

From the announcement:

“This is a first but very important step,” says DREMC President and CEO Michael Watson.

“Today, so much depends on connectivity. Economic development, job creation and retention, healthcare, education, and public service are all enhanced by access to broadband Internet. But many rural households and communities do not have the connectivity they need.”

Watson describes the situation as very similar to the mid-1930s when electric cooperatives were created to bring central station power to rural America.

“Co-ops found ways to build power distribution systems at lower cost, using a non-profit business model based on member ownership, local control, innovation and dedication to community. We believe the same cooperative principles might be applied today to solve the broadband connectivity problem in southern Middle Tennessee,” he says.

Action In The State Capitol?

There is a faction of Tennessee legislators pursuing changes in state laws to improve local connectivity. Those changes focus on municipal network restrictions, but laws for cooperatives could be close behind. By investing in the infrastructure, DREMC is cleverly positioned to either lease to private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or offer services directly if the law changes in the future.

Update on Utah's Open Access UTOPIA - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 223

In the north central region of Utah, eleven communities are now served by a regional open access fiber-optic network operated by the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency or UTOPIA. UTOPIA’s Executive Director, Roger Timmerman, and Mayor Karen Cronin from member community, Perry City, take time to speak with us for Community Broadband Bits episode 223.

One of the great advantages UTOPIA has brought the region is the element of competition. Rather than facing a choice of only one or two Internet Service Providers like most of us, people in UTOPIA cities sign up for a connection to the network and then choose from multiple providers who offer a range of services via the infrastructure. Competing for business brings better products, better prices, and better customer service.

Since launching in 2004, UTOPIA has faced financial uncertainties created by onerous state laws that force a wholesale model on publicly owned networks. Regardless, Mayor Cronin has seen the network improve connectivity in her community, which has improved the local economy and the quality of life. After working with the network since the early days, Roger sees that UTOPIA’s situation is on the upswing but has witnessed firsthand how those harmful state laws limiting local authority can put a smart investment like UTOPIA in harm’s way.

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 25 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."

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

Publication Date: 
October 11, 2016
Author(s): 
H. R. Trostle
Author(s): 
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

Mediacom Lawyers Slow Competition With Court Time, Resources

 

When big corporate incumbent providers fear a hint of competition from a new entrant, they pull out all the stops to quash any potential threat. One of the first lines of offense involves the courts. Iowa City now leases its fiber to Cedar Rapids based ImOn and to stop it, Mediacom is reprocessing an old argument. It didn't work the first time, but they are going for it anyway; this is another example of how cable companies try to hobble competitors; just stalling can be a "win."

A Lawsuit In Search Of An Offense

Mediacom has a franchise agreement with Iowa City to offer cable television services and it also provides subscribers the option to purchase Internet access and telephone services. As most of our readers are attuned to these matters, you probably already understand that just any old cable TV provider can’t come into Iowa City and set up shop. State and local law require them to obtain a franchise agreement, which often includes additional obligations in exchange for access to a community’s potential customer base.

According to a 2015 Gazette article, Mediacom provides annual payments for use of the public right-of-way, operates a local office, and provides free basic cable services to local schools and government buildings. These types of commitments are commonplace as part of franchise agreements and are small sacrifices compared to the potential revenue available to Mediacom.

ImOn started offering Internet access and phone services to Iowa City downtown businesses in January but the company does not offer cable TV services like it does in other Iowa municipalities. ImOn doesn't have a franchise agreement with Iowa City but Mediacom says that it should. They argue that, because ImOn has built a system capable of offering video service, it should also have to obtain a franchise agreement.

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In August, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Wolle dismissed the case, stating in a nutshell:

"Although ImOn is constructing in Iowa City a system that may become capable of delivering cable programming, ImOn is not now delivering cable programming. Therefore, ImOn is not presently required to seek a cable franchise.” 

Blast From The Past

This isn’t the first time this argument has echoed off the walls of a courtroom. Back in 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit dismissed a similar case between Time Warner Cable (TWC) and the city of North Kansas City. The situation was similar, except the city had not yet decided whether to invest in the required head end to provide video over the fiber-optic network they wanted to deploy. At the time, a Missouri law required a vote if the community planned to build and own a system in order to offer cable TV services. TWC wanted the use the court for a pre-emptive strike: to bar the city from using the network for video services stating that they could not do so because they had never held a vote.

TWC's argument revolved around the question of whether or not the city owned or operated a cable television facility, which was in violation of state law. Since the network was not offering cable services and there was no head end yet - in fact they didn't even know if they wanted to invest in one - what really mattered was whether or not North Kansas City owned a "cable TV facility" without prior voter approval. In other words, were they building a network that was capable of offering cable TV services?

As in Iowa City, the court determined that the issue was not “ripe.” From the opinion:

It is factually undisputed that the City's fiber-optic network is not connected to the required head end facility to receive such signals nor is there any plan to acquire it. Thus, Time Warner's statutory claim rests on a contingent future event:  the ownership or operation of a cable-television facility by the City;  therefore, Time Warner's claim that a vote is required under Missouri law is not ripe in that the City does not currently own or operate a cable-television facility because the planned fiber-optic network will not be capable of transmitting cable-television signals and because the City recognizes that in order for it to provide cable-television services a public vote would be required.

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Let's not put the cart before the horse.

Jeff Janssen, vice president of sales and marketing for ImOn said in December that if the provider’s plans change, they will take the necessary steps:

“Franchise agreements are all around cable TV,” he said. “Once we decide, or if we decided to offer cable TV in Iowa City, we would get that franchise agreement, we are required to.”

Every Tool In The Anti-Competitive Toolbox

Mediacom has approximately 4,500 employees and, like the other large corporate providers, they have a highly qualified regiment of attorneys. Not likely they missed the similarities between the North Kansas City and Iowa City cases, but there’s more than one way to win.

Traditionally, winning means presenting the facts and proving to the judge that they fit into the law and that your interpretation of how they work with the law is more correct than your opponent's. For companies like Mediacom and TWC, however, winning can also mean delaying your opponents project to drive up their costs or cool subscriber interest. In other words, going after the fruit before it is "ripe."

Winning may also mean forcing the other side to give up and walk away by driving up their legal costs or making them lose progress when construction is delayed and subscribers lose confidence in the project.

Big incumbents have become masters at using the courts for sabotage schemes, no matter how frivolous the perceived infringement. They sue or threaten to sue over poles, attempts to streamline, and what services a city can and cannot offer. The state legislatures that have passed laws restricting local authority have only helped massive telecoms and cable companies abuse the courts by providing vehicles for their lawsuits. At the same time, they have forced local governments to waste citizen funds and stalled Internet access, typically to the communities most desperate for it.

You can read the Order for Summary Judgement, the Order Amending the Order (which appears to correct a typographical error), and the Notice of Appeal for more.

"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.​

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