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Frustration-Relief: Wilson, N.C. Expanding Greenlight Community Broadband to Nearby Pinetops

gigabit_banner_retinaAfter years of enduring substandard broadband and a law virtually banning community broadband in the state, the 1,300 residents of Pinetops, N.C. are celebrating the forthcoming arrival of public gigabit-capable fiber to the home service from the nearby city of Wilson.

Broadband provider Greenlight will light up its fiber network in the community by April 2016, according to Community Broadband Networks. It isn’t soon enough for frustrated residents and town officials.

“Current providers haven’t made significant upgrades to our broadband service through the years,” said Pinetops interim city town manager Brenda Harrell. “They haven’t found us worth the investment. Through this partnership with Greenlight and our neighbors in Wilson, we are able to meet a critical need for our residents.”

The service comes after five years of negotiations, mostly stalled by the North Carolina Legislature’s passage of HB129, a bill co-authored by Time Warner Cable and celebrated by lawmakers like Rep. Marilyn Avila. Rural North Carolina didn’t get better broadband from HB129, but Avila got a $290 dinner and honored as a guest speaker before grateful cable executives.

greenlight logoIn February 2015, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler announced HB129 was overruled by the federal regulator as anti-competitive, finally opening the door for Pinetops to secure a better broadband future for itself.

In its order, the FCC cited many provisions in North Carolina’s law that violate the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Six of those provisions are mysteriously near-identical to language ghost-written by telecom companies in a “model broadband bill” offered to state legislators as a template by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.

Jim Baller, the attorney representing Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., in their challenge to overturn those two state’s anti-community broadband laws, told the Center the FCC’s citing of those six provisions in its decision leaves much of ALEC’s model law untenable and subject to challenge.

pinetopsnc“Because the North Carolina law uses similar language to that found in the ALEC model legislation, it would seem to follow that any other state that has relied heavily on the ALEC model has also effectively banned municipal broadband investments,” Baller wrote in an email to the group.

ALEC’s “model law” has kept gigabit fiber broadband far away from the residents of Pinetops, challenged by an economic transformation that has put at least a century of tobacco farming and textiles far behind for a small business, high-tech manufacturing, and digitally powered economic future. Just one example is Cary-based ABB, which maintains manufacturing facilities in Pinetops that produce sensors, current transformers, cutouts and other distribution equipment that power smart grid electric utility networks. Bringing more high-tech business to town is a priority for town officials, but having the right infrastructure is crucial.

pinetopsGregory Bethea, Pinetops’ former town manager, told the New York Times in 2014, “if you want to have economic development in a town like this, you’ve got to have fiber.”

But Pinetops’ small size almost guaranteed it would never get fiber from North Carolina’s powerful telecom companies, which include AT&T, CenturyLink, and Time Warner Cable. Many rural communities around the country facing anti-municipal broadband laws like HB129 complain corporate influence threatens the economic viability of small communities over a service incumbents have no intention of offering in small towns, and apparently don’t want anyone else to offer either.

The agreement with Pinetops is also good news for Greenlight, which finally gets to expand outside of its existing service area that reaches about 20,000 residents. Growing Greenlight can bring economic benefits including greater economy of scale and better rates for programming. It will also allow communities in the same economic situation as Wilson, 40 miles east of Raleigh, the opportunity to stay competitive with improving broadband networks in cities like Charlotte and the Piedmont Triad cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point.

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