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Wilson's Greenlight Getting the Publicity It Deserves

WUNC 91.5, North Carolina Public Radio, recently introduced Greenlight to its audience. We have covered Wilson and Greenlight extensively since 2009. Will Michaels spoke with Will Aycock, highlighting the network's gigabit status.

"We're able to support the surveillance cameras and different sensors throughout the community to make us a smarter city.  Certainly, we're able to support many institutions here such as schools and libraries," Aycock says.

"It's really about removing the barriers between our residents, our institutions and the Internet so that people have all the bandwidth they need."

In our 2013 case study, Carolina's Connected Community: Wilson Gives Greenlight to Fast Inernetwe documented the benefits to the community. Aycock commented on the role the network plays in bringing new residents and business to Wilson:

"We're actually seeing folks deciding to move to Wilson from other areas because they want access to this next-generation network," he says.

"People even decide, if they're going to build a house, where to build a house.  For instance, radiologists want to be on the network because it helps them to more efficiently do their jobs from home."

Now if North Carolina's Legislature would just undo the 2011 power grab, when it passed legislation to revoke authority from communities to decide locally if building their own network made sense.

Muni Network Debate in Charlotte Observer

In a recent op ed in the Charlotte Observer, Christopher Mitchell delves into why North Carolina ranks last in per capita subscribers to a broadband connection. The state, through its legislature, is held hostage by large providers such as Time Warner, CenturyLink, and AT&T. David Hoyle, a retired Senator who admitted pushing bills written by Time Warner Cable, signed his name to an op-ed arguing cities should not have the authority to make their own decisions in this regard.

Readers know that Time Warner and CenturyLink (formerly EMBARQ) targeted Wilson's Greenlight, leading to restrictive barriers for any similar initiatives. In his opinion piece, Chris delves into how those providers create an environment that kills opportunity for the people of North Carolina and how local publicly owned networks could restore those opportunities.

The Observer edited the original piece for length, but we provide the full version:

If you think you’re being ripped off by the cable and telephone companies, you aren’t alone. These companies rank at the top of the most hated corporations in America, year after year. Given a recent report from the Federal Communications Commission, North Carolinians have more reasons to be angry than most Americans.

Released last month, the FCC’s annual Internet Access Services [pdf] report shows North Carolina last among U.S. states in percentage of households subscribing to high-speed Internet connections as defined in the National Broadband Plan. 

seal-north-carolina.jpg

This news comes on the heels of State Representative Brawley announcing that House Speaker Tillis told him he had a “business relationship” with Time Warner Cable after Brawley introduced legislation opposed by the cable giant. But one alleged relationship does not explain how North Carolina fell to last place in that FCC ranking.

The deeper problem is power Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink have at the General Assembly. These companies successfully lobbied for two flagship bills that increased prices, limited competition, and generally hurt consumers and businesses throughout the state.

Back in 2006, the General Assembly bowed to industry pressure and passed a bill for statewide video franchising. Local governments lost their right to oversee companies offering television services or require them to build out to everyone. North Carolina was promised a new age of cable competition and lower prices.

Prices continued to rise – a 2009 study from the University of Minnesota actually noted that North Carolina’s prices were among the fastest rising in the nation. But even now, most families still have the same limited options for cable and Internet service.

Fed up and recognizing that the cable and phone giants would never allow competition to prosper, the City of Wilson took matters into its own hands by building its own next-generation fiber optic network. Completed by 2009, the network has been a success and Wilson is the first community in North Carolina to have universal access to a gigabit – about 100x faster than cable speeds.

Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink lobbied against Wilson from the start and engaged in a multi-year effort in Raleigh to revoke the authority of any local government in the state to build a similar network. For five years, they worked with the now infamous ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, to push bills that would effectively ban local governments from building networks.

Follow the Money Logo

In 2011, the new Speaker of the House, Representative Tillis, ushered just such a bill through the House after receiving $37,000 from the telecom companies in the previous election cycle. Though he ran unopposed, he received significantly more from that industry than any other candidate, according to a  report from the National Institute for Money in State Politics called “Dialing up the Dollars.”

Strictly speaking, the bill was not technically a ban. We call these “leprechaun-unicorn bills” because a local government effectively has to find a leprechaun riding a unicorn to meet the standard necessary to build a network.

What it really did was revoke local judgment for state authority – something Republicans regularly decry in other circumstances. Opponents of the bill consistently argued that these decisions should be made at the local level, by those who will live with the consequences for better or for worse.

These two bills are essential to understanding why North Carolina has such poor access to the Internet and ever-increasing cable prices. Consumer protections typically come from the market (competition) or government (regulation). But these big companies are too powerful for other private companies to compete against and local governments have no regulatory power to protect consumers. Big cable and phone companies have little fear of competition and little motivation to invest in regionally or globally competitive upgrades.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is tracking over 400 local governments across the nation that have invested in telecommunications networks and very few have regretted it. Just outside North Carolina, the cities of Bristol, Chattanooga, Danville, and a few others offer some of the fastest network connections at the lowest prices in the entire United States. If even 10 percent of these networks actually were failures, cable lobbyists wouldn’t have to spend millions lobbying states to revoke local authority to build them.

The General Assembly should return authority to local communities and trust them to make decisions. But as long as big cable and phone companies maintain their “business relationship” with elected officials, you can expect to see more decisions made in Raleigh rather than at the local level.

For the whole story on the war against Greenlight, you can download a copy of our case study, The Empire Lobbyies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina.

First Gigabit Network in North Carolina: City of Wilson's Greenlight

In North Carolina, Wilson's Greenlight will begin offering gigabit residential services as early as July. Greenlight began offering FTTH service since 2008 to businesses and households and now provides affordable and reliable triple play.

Along the journey, Greenlight faced a playing field tilted in favor of incumbent providerspredatory behavior from those incumbents, and dangerous legislative barriers created by companies like Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink.

From the press release:

“In January, the Federal Communications Commission issued a challenge to communities to provide gigabit service by 2015, and we’re proud to answer that challenge now.  We are excited to launch our gigabit service and allow our customers to be the first in the state to experience such high speed Internet access,” said Will Aycock, general manager of Greenlight.  “Ultra-high speed Internet will help position Wilson for the future and will provide our businesses and residents with the tools they need to succeed.”

Wilson Got a Gig

Greenlight currently serves approximately 6,000 customers in Wilson and provides service to schools throughout the larger county. The network provides free downtown Wi-Fi through the downtown area.

We published two extensive reports on the challenges confronting the Wilson community as they planned and built out the network. Carolina's Connected Community: Wilson Gives Greenlight to Fast Internet tells the story of the network and difficulties along the way. The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned the Competition in North Carolina describes the backlash from incumbents and the resulting state barriers, championed by Time Warner Cable and what is now CenturyLink.

While envious of the possibilities in Wilson, we congratulate Greenlight and its community for this great achievement.

The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina

Publication Date: 
January 3, 2013
Author(s): 
Todd O'Boyle, Common Cause
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

In late 2006, Wilson, North Carolina, voted to build a Fiber-­‐to-­‐the-­‐Home network. Wilson’s decision came after attempts to work with Time Warner Cable and EMBARQ (now CenturyLink) to improve local connectivity failed.

Wilson’s decision and resulting network was recently examined in a case study by Todd O’Boyle of Common Cause and ILSR's Christopher Mitchell titled Carolina’s Connected Community: Wilson Gives Greenlight to Fast Internet. This new report picks up with Wilson’s legacy: an intense multiyear lobbying campaign by Time Warner Cable, AT&T, CenturyLink, and others to bar communities from building their own networks. The report examines how millions of political dollars bought restrictions in the state that will propagate private monopolies rather than serve North Carolinians.

Download the new report here: The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina

These companies can and do try year after year to create barriers to community-­‐owned networks. They only have to succeed once; because of their lobbying power, they have near limitless power to stop future bills that would restore local authority. Unfortunately, success means more obstacles and less economic development for residents and businesses in North Carolina and other places where broadband accessibility is tragically low.

It certainly makes sense for these big companies to want to limit local authority to build next-­‐generation networks. What remains puzzling is why any state legislature would want to limit the ability of a community to build a network to improve educational outcomes, create new jobs, and give both residents and businesses more choices for an essential service. This decision should be made by those that have to feel the consequences—for better and for worse.

This story was originally posted on the ILSR website.

Wilson's Greenlight Leads North Carolina in Fast Internet

Publication Date: 
December 5, 2012
Author(s): 
Todd O'Boyle, Common Cause
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Following the collapse of key industries, a town of 50,000 in eastern North Carolina had to make a hard choice. It wanted to support existing businesses and attract new ones but the cable and telephone companies were not interested in upgrading their networks for cutting edge capacity.

So Wilson decided to build its own fiber optic network, now one of the fastest in the nation, earning praise from local businesses that have a new edge over competitors in the digital economy. In response, Time Warner Cable lowered its prices and modestly boosted available Internet speeds, contributing to the $1 million saved by the community each year.

Download Carolina's Connected Community: Wilson Gives Greenlight to Fast Internet here.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance and Common Cause have just released a case study of how and why Wilson built Greenlight, a citywide next-generation fiber-to-the-home network that set the standard for connectivity in North Carolina. The report is authored by Todd O'Boyle of Common Cause and Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

The network, owned and operated by the municipal utility, offer telephone, television, and Internet services to every resident or business in the city. Over 6,000 households and businesses have subscribed, a take rate of over 30% and growing. Additionally, the network has connected all of the schools with at least 100 Mbps connections. Downtown has free Wi-Fi and the library has benefited with a higher capacity connection for people looking for jobs and taking computer classes.

The Federal Communications Commission ranks North Carolina last in the nation in percentage of households subscribing to at least a "basic broadband" service, largely because Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and AT&T have declined to upgrade their networks to modern standards. Only 13% subscribe to a connection that is at least 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream -- the minimum required to take advantage of basic Internet applications according to the FCC.

This story was originally posted on the ILSR website.

This report is the first of two. The second will be published shortly and will feature a discussion of how Time Warner Cable reacted, pushing legislation through the General Assembly to block other communities from copying Wilson's success.

New Video: Community Fiber Networks Better than Phone, Cable Networks

Update: You can also watch the video over at the Huffington Post, in our first post as a HuffPo blogger.

While we were battling Time Warner Cable to preserve local authority in North Carolina, we developed a video comparing community fiber networks to incumbent DSL and cable networks to demonstration the incredible superiority of community networks.

We have updated the video for a national audience rather than a North Carolina-specific approach because community fiber networks around the country are similarly superior to incumbent offerings. And community networks around the country are threatened by massive corporations lobbying them out of existence in state legislatures.

Feel free to send feedback - especially suggestions for improvement - to broadband@muninetworks.org.

Without further ado, here is the new video comparing community fiber networks to big incumbent providers:

Video: 
See video

Public Testimony in Senate Finance Committee Against Time Warner Cable bill in North Carolina

We have again isolated individual comments from the arguments around Time Warner Cable's bill to strip local authorities of the right to build broadband networks vastly superior to their services. On April 13, the Senate Finance Committee allowed public comment on TWC's H129 bill. Craig Settles has posted an extended story about a small business struggling to get by with the existing paucity of service in her community.

There was no hope that I could efficiently communicate, collaborate, and share online documents and applications with clients and peer professionals. I couldn’t even buy a functional phone line. For years I paid for a level of service from Centurylink that I can only describe as absolutely embarrassing.

This bill will make it vastly harder, if not impossible, for communities to build the necessary infrastructure to succeed in the digital economy. Listening to those pushing the bill, it is very clear they have no conception of the vast difference between barely broadband DSL from CenturyLink and Wilson's Greenlight community fiber network -- essentially the difference between a hang glider and a Boeing 747. And many in North Carolina don't even have access to the hang glider! Yet the Legislature cares more about protecting the monopoly of powerful companies that contribute to their campaigns than ensuring all residents and businesses have access to the fast, affordable, and reliable broadband they need to flourish.

Thanks to Voter Radio for making audio from the hearing available.  Each of the following comments is approximately 2 minutes long.

With New Hope, North Carolina Broadband Struggle Continues

On Wednesday morning, March 22, the House Finance Committee will again consider H 129, a bill from Time Warner Cable to make it all but impossible for communities to build their own broadband networks. But now, as noted by Craig Settles, the momentum is shifting.

Last week, advocates had a big victory when Representatives Faison and Warren successfully amended the bill (each with his own amendment) to make it less deleterious to communities. Unlike the sham voice vote in the Public Utility Committee, Chairman Setzer of the Finance Committee had a recorded vote, allowing citizens to hold their representatives accountable.

After these amendments passed, the TWC lobbyist signaled for an aide. Shortly thereafter, the committee decided to table the matter until this week -- when TWC will undoubtedly try to remove or nullify those amendments.

In the meantime, AT&T has announced bandwidth caps, yet another reason the state is foolish to pin its broadband future on cable and DSL companies.

Compare AT&T's movement to less-broadband with Wilson Greenlight's recent dramatic price decreases in its ridiculously fast broadband network, causing at least one couple to move there! Greenlight is owned and operated by the public power company owned by the city.

Greenlight has signed up its first residential customers with the highest Internet speed available in Wilson.

Vince and Linda Worthington, former Johnston County residents, moved to Wilson after finding out that they could have access to 40 Megabits per second Internet speeds at a lower cost than what they were previously paying.

"We always wanted the 100Mbps service," she said. "When the price came down, we jumped on it." Greenlight, the city of Wilson's fiber-optic broadband network, has close to 5,600 cable, Internet and telephone subscribers. Greenlight sells its 100 Mbps symmetrical service, with the same upload and download speeds, starting at $149.95 per month as part of a package. Greenlight's 60 Mbps start at $99.95, 40 Mbps at $74.95, 20 Mbps at $54.95 and 10 Mbps at $34.95. Greenlight's 40 Mbps is becoming increasingly popular with customers, said Brian Bowman, Wilson's public affairs manager.

To recap, the publicly owned networks are investing in faster and lower-priced networks while private companies are simply trying to maximize their income from the old networks. Good deal if you can convince the Legislature to outlaw your competition....

TWC and its proxy in the Legislature, Representative Avila, wanted this bill to fly through as quickly as possible -- which is why the Public Utilities Committee cut off discussion with a sham voice vote long before most members were ready. But as the public has learned more, they are opposing TWC's power grab quite loudly. This from a Winston-Salem Journal editorial:

Internet-service providers can't have it both ways. They can't delay bringing high-speed service to North Carolina communities but then turn around and lobby the legislature to deny local governments the authority to establish municipal service if their residents want it.

….

Had the private companies tried to make their argument 15 years ago, they might have deserved some sympathy. But not in 2011. The Internet and high-speed access to it have now been available in North Carolina homes for well more than a decade.
They ignored a market, and local governments stepped in to provide a critical service. The legislature should kill this bill.

In an op-ed, Mark Turner recalls the crucial role of non-commercial coops electrifying the state when private companies saw no profit in it. An excellent read

Mark Turner dot Net

Citing the economics, private Internet providers have been slow to invest in the high-speed infrastructure that would connect these rural communities. That has a lot to do with why North Carolina ranks a paltry 41st in the nation for broadband access, according to Census Bureau statistics.
Having been snubbed by the private providers, some communities like Wilson and Salisbury have taken the same approach as they did 66 years ago: opting to build their own state-of-the-art systems when the commercial providers refused. Now the General Assembly, through a bill sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Raleigh, aims to throw substantial roadblocks in the way of communities seeking to serve themselves.

Columnist Scott Mooneyham also recognized the similarities to electrification:

In many ways, the issues involved aren’t very different from when investor-owned electricity providers were unwilling to bring service to small town and rural North Carolina early in the 20th century.

By the 1930s, the federal and state government were taking steps to encourage rural electrification and the formation of electric co-ops, including providing loans needed for the construction of the systems.

One of the first electric co-ops in the country was formed by Edgecombe County farmers.

Perhaps North Carolina legislators ought to contemplate what the state might look like today if their predecessors had quashed the aspirations of those farmers, rather than giving them tax breaks.

For a more substantive review of what folks in North Carolina are saying about this bill, Stop the Cap! has a great run-down.

What can we expect in the hearings tomorrow? Well, more lies from the cable industry, as recently quoted in an article about the bill:

"I am confident, at some point, that the state law will address this," said Marcus Trathen, an attorney with the [cable] association. "We have never said that cities should be prohibited. If they compete, they should be subject to the same rules as private companies."

We have already detailed (at the bottom of this post) the many ways this bill will introduce bigger barriers and unique regulation for public networks that do not apply to companies like TWC, but let's quickly refresh with two examples.

  1. If Trathen wants the same rules, then TWC will abide by the open meetings laws and publish budgets, business plans, etc., for the public to review. And communities get to vote on kicking TWC out of town.
  2. This bill must be redrafted not to prohibit communities from offering service outside town. NC law makes it very easy for TWC to offer state-wide service and communities should not have a barrier to do similar.

There you go, anyone reporting the lie that this is "level playing field" legislation should be confronted with the facts.

Things are looking way up in terms of preserving local authority to build these networks. Thanks to the rapid and enormous public outcry (making phone calls to state Reps can make a big difference!), the bill was slowed down so the public could get a better sense of exactly what TWC and Avila were conspiring.

Salisbury's Fibrant, realized this bill posed an existential threat to its future (despite the public lies of Rep Avila who claimed it did not target existing networks) because the bondholders need to be repaid regardless of whether TWC convinces the Legislature to shut Fibrant down. They hired a lobbyist. This came after their Mayor worked long and hard to get the Legislature to understand what it was messing with.

At $5,000/month, the cost is a pittance compared to the damage of allowing TWC's bill to shut down Fibrant (to clarify, the bill currently does not threaten Fibrant due to Rep Warren's amendment -- but TWC will do everything it can to remove that amendment).

We have long maintained that these issues have little to do with partisan politics and Salisbury's new lobbyist proves that point.

Council committed to use Fetzer, the outgoing N.C. Republican Party chairman and a former mayor of Raleigh, for one month and could retain him throughout the legislative session, which ends in July.

Preserving local authority cuts across Republican/Democratic Party lines. What often matters far more is how much cable and telephone companies have contributed to election funds for candidates.

And finally, another opportunity to promote the video we produced showing why community networks are so important in North Carolina.

Video: 
See video

Whose Internet? NC Communities Should Defend Freedom to Build Networks

Durham's Herald Sun published our op-ed about community broadband networks in North Carolina. Reposted here:

Who should decide the future of broadband access in towns across North Carolina? Citizens and businesses in towns across the state, or a handful of large cable and phone companies? The new General Assembly will almost certainly be asked to address that question.

Fed up with poor customer service, overpriced plans and unreliable broadband access, Wilson and Salisbury decided to build their own next-generation networks. Faced with the prospect of real competition in the telecom sector, phone and cable companies have aggressively lobbied the General Assembly to abolish the right of other cities to follow in Wilson and Salisbury's pioneering footsteps.

The decision by Wilson and Salisbury to build their own networks is reminiscent of the decision by many communities 100 years ago to build their own electrical grids when private electric companies refused to provide them inexpensive, reliable service.

An analysis by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (http://tiny.cc/MuniNetworks) compares the speed and price of broadband from incumbent providers in North Carolina to that offered by municipally owned Greenlight in Wilson and Fibrant in Salisbury.

Wilson and Salisbury offer much faster connections at similar price points, delivering more value for the dollar while keeping those dollars in the community. For instance, the introductory broadband tiers from Wilson (10 downstream/10 upstream Mbps) and Salisbury (15/15 Mbps) beat the fastest advertised tiers in Raleigh of AT&T (6/.5 Mbps) and TWC (10/.768 Mbps). And by building state-of-the-art fiber-optic networks, subscribers actually receive the speeds promised in advertisements. DSL and cable connections, for a variety of reasons, rarely achieve the speeds promised.

Curbing innovation

The Research Triangle is a hub of innovation but is stuck with last-century broadband delivered by telephone lines and cable connections. In the Triangle, as in most of the United States, broadband subscribers choose between slow DSL from the incumbent telephone company and faster but by no means adequate cable broadband from the incumbent cable company.

A few DSL subscribers may have access to U-Verse, but most are waiting for someone in Texas (AT&T's headquarters) to authorize the upgrade to U-Verse (faster than typical DSL but much slower than full fiber-optics). On the cable side, someone in New York (Time Warner Cable's headquarters) decided to force subscribers in the Triangle to wait for cable upgrades long after many cities had received them.

Perhaps by the end of 2011, all businesses and residents in the Triangle will have access to the best broadband TWC and AT&T have to offer -- which is still inferior to that offered by Wilson, Salisbury, any community with Verizon's FiOS, and just about every major city in Europe or Asia.

The opposition

Under state law, communities can organize and build their own broadband networks to ensure their citizens have world-class access to the Internet. The argument for preempting this local authority features two diametrically opposed claims:

  • Communities should not build these networks because they always fail.
  • Communities should not compete with the private sector because they will drive the existing provider(s) out of business.

Interestingly, the preponderance of evidence actually weighs against both claims. The vast majority of community fiber networks have performed extremely well against great odds. After winning the costly, frivolous lawsuits filed against communities by incumbents, community networks have successfully competed against temporary, artificially low prices by competitors who use profits from non-competitive areas to subsidize their efforts to deny any subscribers to a new network.

The few community fiber networks that have struggled against these odds are presented as the norm by industry-funded think tanks that try to scare any community considering a broadband investment.

A public monopoly?

There are few, if any, instances where community networks have driven incumbents out of business. It is true that once a community network begins operating, incumbent profits decline, often because they lower prices and increase investments -- each of which greatly benefits the community. But even if that were not true, why should a local government in North Carolina care more for the profits of two massive out-of-state companies than for what is best for their citizens and the future of the community?

The incumbent lobbyists will say that local governments can just raise taxes to unfairly cross-subsidize the networks. The reality is that citizens enjoy having their taxes raised about as much as having their cable rates raised. Citizens have little recourse when cable companies raise their rates, but they can directly express their dissatisfaction with elected officials who arbitrarily raise their taxes, by voting them out of office.

Local control

Remember though, the argument here is not about whether any given community should build a network. Right now, communities make that choice themselves. For years, lobbyists have pushed the General Assembly to take that decision away, either directly or by creating a web of contrived obstacles.

On matters of essential infrastructure, communities should be free to decide whether they will build it or depend on others. For years, Mooresville and Davidson relied on Adelphia for cable access while the network fell into disrepair. In the wake of Adelphia's bankruptcy, they chose to take it over to avoid continued similar problems from TWC. In taking it over, they found it in even worse shape than expected, resulting in higher costs to fix it. This situation, fixing the failure of the private sector, is actually used by telecom companies to argue against public ownership.

There is a very good reason so many communities are considering a variety of broadband investments: private providers are not meeting their needs. The question is whether the General Assembly wants to let communities move forward as they choose, or let out-of-state companies decide the competitiveness of the state.

Interview with Wilson's Greenlight Community Fiber Network

This is a good 5 minute interview discussing what Wilson has done to build the first citywide FTTH network in North Carolina. Greenlight has a business customer taking 1Gbps -- something that would undoubtedly have been totally cost-prohibitive (and possibly just unavailable) if the City had not made its broadband infrastructure investment.

Toward the end, Brian Bowman is asked if he recommends all communities build a similar network. His answer is very wise: all communities should have the right to do it and they should decide for themselves based on their situation. That is our position as well.