Most of North Carolina knows about the telephone and internet services the town of Wilson offered to its citizens. Called Greenlight, it was such a threat to Time Warner, Comcast and AT&T that the telecom giants made donations to now-US Senator Thom Tillis that he spearheaded a bill through the legislature that denied all NC municipalities the ability to follow Wilson's lead and create their own wifi services for citizens. Time Warner, in particular, had made it well-known that they had no plans at all to run cable up every mountain valley and down every farm road in the state to reach our more far-flung citizens as there was simply no profit in it for them. But campaign donations seem to speak loudly and the NCGA GOP responded as the corporation expected they would. Wilson's system could be grand-fathered in, but there could be no out-of-county expansion of Greenlight's services and no other municipality could provide such services to their citizens.
In April, 2016, the FCC declared such laws (also enacted in Tennessee) to be anti-competitive. Greenlight was back in business, so to speak, and expanded coverage to the small town of Pinetops. Previously, Centurylink only offered Pinetops dial up service. That's right. It was DSL only for the 1,300 citizens of Pinetops. Meanwhile:
...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....
...As Celia Kang wrote in her article in the NY Times, about
the Vick Family Farms, a family potato farm in Wilson, North Carolina. The Vick family chose to invest in a processing plant when they learned that Wilson’s Greenlight would provide the necessary connectivity. Greenlight allowed them to increase sales overseas. Now, they may lose that connection:
“We’re very worried because there is no way we could run this equipment on the internet service we used to have, and we can’t imagine the loss we’ll have to the business,” said Charlotte Vick, head of sales for the farm....
And then there's:
Tina Gomez, a Pinetops resident, quickly saw Greenlight’s benefits. She recently got a telework job with General Electric, which requires reliable high-speed internet service to run a customer service software program. Ms. Gomez, 37, also started online courses in medical billing and coding. Before subscribing to Greenlight, finding telework was a challenge because the existing home internet service was too slow, she said.
Now the political squabble over broadband may hurt her livelihood. Mark Gomez, Ms. Gomez’s husband, said they would move from Pinetops to Wilson when their broadband service was disconnected.
“We can’t stay if the basic services we need aren’t here,” Ms. Gomez said.
Gov. McCrory appealed the FCC's decision, and in August, the Sixth Circuit for the US Court of Appeals reversed the FCC ruling. The state law was once again in affect. It would force Wilson to discontinue Greenlight's service to Pinetops, which was across the county line, or be at risk of losing their own exemption from that law. They had until Halloween to pull service from Pinetops and send that community back in time, ruining what economic gains the town had experienced from having access to broadband.
“While we are very passionate about reaching underserved areas and we think the laws are atrocious to prevent people from having service, we’re not going to jeopardize our ability to serve Wilson residents.”
"It is a travesty that North Carolina is prioritizing the profits of the big cable and telephone companies above the well-being of local businesses and residents. The state legislature needs to focus on what is good for North Carolina businesses and residents, not only what these powerful lobbyists want."
In the words of Wilson's City Manager:
“This is bigger than Wilson. This is about the rural areas, particularly in eastern North Carolina, because the majority of the area does not present enough profitability to attract the private-sector investment,” Goings said. “As a community, a state and frankly as a nation, we need to find ways to connect these rural communities, and our city council believes strongly that our state officials should focus on being part of the solution instead of constructing barriers to prevent communities from being served.”
Then came Hurricane Matthew. According the News & Observer, there were 200 water rescues in and around Pinetops in the aftermath of the hurricane. Sweet potatoes were seen floating atop the flood waters. Crops were ruined. Houses flooded. Lives disrupted. And the neighboring town of Wilson still had until Halloween to pull its Greenlight wifi service from Pinetops or be at risk from losing its own exemption to the NC law. What to do? The law said Wilson could not sell their services across county lines.... Did that leave an opening??
...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."
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 https://www.change.org/p/north-carolina-state-house-small-towns-in-nc-need-access-to-quality-internet ... that's supposed to say, On Line Petition, you can sign to show your support.
The saddest part of this story rests with the GOP leadership at our General Assembly. They loudly complain that the rural areas of our state are being left behind. They discuss changing the formula for dissemination of sales tax revenue so more goes to rural counties. They appear determined to punish urban areas for some perceived sin. Then they turn around and repeatedly enact legislation that hurts the people in these rural areas even more.
The Republican leadership our our General Assembly puts corporate interests ahead of citizen needs. And you can change that.
Next week. November 8th. Vote.