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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."

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.

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.

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.

Blair Levin In Wilson For Nov. 4 Event On Greenlight

A North Carolina regional tech news publication will host a program on Greenlight, the publicly owned and built fiber optic network of Wilson, North Carolina (pop. 50,000) whose gigabit Internet service has helped transform the community’s economy. 

WRAL TechWire’s next Executive Exchange event titled “Building a gigabit ecosystem” will look at how Wilson built its fiber optic system, "turning the one-time tobacco town into North Carolina’s first Internet ecosystem." The event begins at 8 a.m. Friday, Nov. 4 at the Edna Boykin Cultural Center; broadband expert Blair Levin is scheduled to give the keynote address. Levin is former chief of staff at the Federal Communications Commission.

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.

Besides Levin’s keynote speech, the TechWire program also will include a live "fireside chat" about Greenlight with Wilson City Manager Grant Goings and panel discussions.

You can find out more about the program and reserve a spot online.

Chatham County, NC: Share Your Connectivity Perspective In This Survey

With the release of our North Carolina report, it is important to remember that reports and maps are only as good as the underlying data. Although federal and state governments have collected information on deployment and access for several years, the accuracy and quality of that data is up for debate. Chatham County, North Carolina, wants to show the actual situation that local residents face.  

Chatham County is encouraging every household or business to complete a survey this next month. The survey will enable community leaders to move forward.

“It is up to us…”

Chatham County is home to just shy of 70,000 people. This rural county's population is spread throughout a rural area with 85 people per square mile. Darlene Yudell, the Director of Management and Information Systems for the county, explained the potential impact of the survey:

“It is up to us to show areas that are unserved or underserved. We also have to deal with the fact that several state regulations and laws restrict what counties can do to promote more broadband options in those areas.”

The federal data is based around Form 477. Internet service providers (ISPs) submit to the Federal Communications Commission what their maximum advertised download and upload speeds are for each census block. This form, however, does not include information around pricing. 

Although a census block may have high-speed Internet access, it may be unaffordable and it may only be available to one or two houses in that census block. According to the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office, only 16 percent of North Carolina's population subscribe to broadband speeds, defined by the FCC as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, despite 93 percent of the state ostensibly having access to such speeds.

How accurate is North Carolina's assessment of the data, however? Listen to our discussion about form 477 and the real situation in the state in episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Chatham County hopes residents will provide a more accurate picture of what is available by sharing their real world situation rather than depending on ISPs for data.

The Survey

If you live in Chatham County, North Carolina, we encourage you to take part in this survey.

The survey is available online at: chathamnc.seamlessdocs.com/f/ChathamBroadbandSurvey

For a paper copy: email darlene.yudell@chathamnc.org or send a request by mail to Chatham County MIS, 158 West St., Pittsboro, NC 27312.

H.R. Trostle On Co-ops, Munis, Connectivity In North Carolina - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 224

In June, North Carolina released a report pronouncing that 93 percent of the state has access to broadband speeds. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, our Research Associate H.R. Trostle, who has been examining reporting data in North Carolina for the past year, came to some very different conclusions. In episode 224, she and Christopher talk about the report they co-authored, which gives a different perspective on the connectivity situation in the Tar Heel State.

In their report, North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Trostle discovered that, while urban areas have been well served by the big private providers, those same national companies have shunned rural areas. Instead, rural cooperatives and municipal networks are attempting to serve their residents and businesses with high-quality Internet access. It isn’t easy, however, when state laws discourage investment and access to federal funding.

Trostle gets into her analysis of the data, its limitations, and what we can learn from both. She and Chris go through some of the recommendations they provide to the state of North Carolina as it moves forward. The obvious first step is to repeal the state’s barrier on municipal network expansion, which has caused real harm in Pinetops, North Carolina. They also offer advice on how to facilitate telephone and electric cooperative investment and what that could mean for rural North Carolina.

For more, take a few minutes to download the report, which offers useful maps of where to find various connection speeds in the state.

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 23 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."

Authors Discuss NC Report On PRX

We have extensively studied the connectivity situation in North Carolina and just released our report, “North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Now you can hear from the report authors, H.R. Trostle and Christopher Mitchell, in our most recent PRX coverage.

We spoke with both authors who gave us a recap of the situation in urban and rural North Carolina. They explained how they examined the data and came to the conclusion that, while urban areas are served relatively well by big private providers, the same cannot be said in rural areas. Unless a muni or rural telephone or electric cooperative offers Internet access in a rural region, odds are rural residents and businesses just don’t have access to FCC defined broadband speeds. Audio coverage runs 5:22.

Listen to the story on PRX…

You can also download the report to dig into the details and learn more about connectivity in North Carolina.