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North Carolina Organizes for Local Internet Choice - Community Broadband Bits Episode 184

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) has its first local chapter with the formation of CLIC-NC. Catharine Rice, who is both part of CLIC-NC and the Project Director for CLIC, explains what is happening on episode 184 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

We remind listeners what CLIC is and the goals of CLIC-NC more specifically. We also discuss the interesting comments of NC Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is both challenging the FCC's authority to remove North Carolina's anti-muni law and supportive of removing the law via the state legislature.

Catharine has long been involved in the effort for Local Internet Choice and put up an incredibly strong fight to stop anti-competition bills advanced by Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and others over multiple years in North Carolina. She was the guest on our 5th episode of this show.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 20 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 can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Wilson Moves to Expand Greenlight Network to Neighboring Town

Thanks to a new interlocal agreement, the City of Wilson, North Carolina will soon expand its Greenlight community broadband network to the nearby Town of Pinetops. Officials expect to complete the expansion of the gigabit fiber network by April 2016. Pinetops, a town of 1,300, is less than 20 miles from Wilson, population 50,000.

We’re Waiting...

For Brenda Harrell, Pinetops Interim Town Manager, the agreement has been a long time coming after years of frustration over their limited broadband access options.

“Current providers haven’t made significant upgrades to our broadband service through the years,” “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.”

As far back as 2010, city leaders in Wilson were in negotiations with Pinetops officials on a proposal to expand the Greenlight network to reach Pinetops. But those negotiations reached an impasse in 2011 when the State of North Carolina passed H129. Since then, officials in Wilson and in surrounding communities have been waiting for a time when Wilson could extend their the Greenlight network footprint.

The new agreement became possible in the wake of the FCC decision in February to overturn North Carolina’s anti-muni HB 129, allowing North Carolina communities to start considering the option to build their own broadband networks or expand on existing networks. While the state has appealed that decision in hopes of preserving the law, this agreement indicates Wilson officials are looking confidently ahead with the expectation that the state’s appeal will fail.

Looking Back, and to the Future

Last November, when the New York Times wrote about the fight in communities around the nation for the right to build and expand community broadband networks, they talked to Gregory Bethea, the now retired town manager of Pinetops, North Carolina:

“If you want to have economic development in a town like this, you’ve got to have fiber,” Bethea told them.

And that’s what this agreement is about: giving Pinetops the local authority necessary to create their own economic opportunities.

In that article the Times also quoted Will Aycock, the General Manager of Wilson’s Greenlight network. At the time, Aycock was already looking beyond the state’s anti-muni law to future expansion:

“We would probably be building tomorrow if the law changed today,” Mr. Aycock said. “We’re not saying that we’re going to build out all of eastern Carolina or even all of our service territory tomorrow. But there are areas where we’d like to go now.”

With this new agreement in place, Aycock is now able to see those plans for expansion come to fruition. Upon reaching the agreement, he said:

“Our commitment to improving the delivery of City services through our smart grid initiatives has made broadband service to Pinetops possible, as the same fiber that supports the smart grid system will be leveraged to deliver next generation broadband.” 

No Love Lost Between North Carolina A.G. And State Barrier

The State of North Carolina is currently awaiting a decision from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals as the court considers the FCC's February decision to roll back state barriers. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper's office is heading up the state's appeal, but is his heart in it?

Cooper is running for governor and, in a recent interview, expressed his views about H129, the focus of the appeal in North Carolina [emphasis ours]:

The Legislature has passed a lot of bad laws, but it is the job of the attorney general to defend state laws...And I wish the governor and the General Assembly would stop passing so many bad laws that create litigation. We’ve seen that in many instances. This is another situation where the attorney general’s office is duty bound to defend state law.

"Bad law" accurately describes H129, which is the reason why the FCC rolled it back in February. Perhaps Cooper's candid comment suggests that, if he one day becomes Governor, he will work with his colleagues in the state legislature to repeal it.

Rather than having to contend with this type of "bad law," local communities need the authority to make their own telecommunications decisions. After all, local folks are the ones that live with the results.

“Crazy Fast” Connectivity Expands in Westminster, Maryland

Gigabit Internet access will soon be reaching more residents in Westminster. The high-speed municipal fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network in Maryland will soon add more than 2,000 new homes to the network map.

The Incredible Expanding Network

The network is a product of a public-private partnership with telecommunications company Ting. The expansion provides more evidence of the continuing success of the network in this city of just under 19,000 people about 35 miles northwest of Baltimore.

The network was originally planned as a pilot project confined to small, select areas of Westminster, but high demand prompted community leaders to broaden the reach of the project. Eventually, Westminster budgeted for citywide infrastructure.

City Manager of the Ting project, Valerie Bortz, recently said of the network "we are super busy and happy with our progress.” In October 2015, the city released an RFP calling for bids from contractors to provide maintenance on the expanding network - more proof of the city's commitment to ensure the network’s growth and success.

More Money, More Fiber

The Phase 2 expansion was made possible by a $21 million general obligation bond agreement with SunTrust Bank, approved at a September City Council meeting. According to Common Council President Robert Wack, the bank’s willingness to buy the bonds came in part as a result of the proven high demand for fast, reliable, affordable, symmetrical fiber service in Westminster. He also added:

We don't want to spend money unless there is revenue from the payments to support the debt payments. The bank liked the fact we were being cautious about this. I'd like to go full steam ahead but we need people to sign up.

The bond agreement has been in the works for some time now:

All along, our plan was to borrow the money necessary to continue the build out. We are getting ready to take down the first draw that will be spent on engineering the next phase.

The city will pay off the bonds on a 30-year amortization schedule but have the option to convert the debt to a 15-year schedule if they find profits from the network allow a faster payment schedule. The city’s ability to pay off the loan faster will depend on the success of the network. The city can draw off the $21 million in bonds for five years.

Growth of the Partnership

Beyond this second phase of the project, Wack expressed optimism about the timetable for completing the two additional phases in the network map. "Ideally, we'd like to be done in three to four years, but it could easily go five to six," he said. Construction variables and the rate of new subscribership will influence the timetable.

In January 2015, Westminster and Ting entered into a partnership which was recognized as 2015’s “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year” by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA). The city owns, funds, and maintains the network while Ting has a 2 year exclusivity contract to lease the fiber and provide equipment and retail services. At the end of 2 years, the city will have the right to invite other providers to offer services via the infrastructure.

Ting, which markets itself as a provider of “crazy fast” fiber Internet service, also provides high speed broadband service in Charlottesville, Virginia with plans to make Holly Springs, North Carolina the next “Ting Internet Town.”

Listen to Chris interview Dr. Robert Wack, the man who spearheaded the initiative, in episode 100, and Tucows CEO Elliot Noss, parent company of Ting, in episode 134 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

NC Partners: Fiber Will Give Region A Green Light to A Gig

The Tri-Gig High Speed Broadband Initiative, an effort by communities and universities within Greensboro's Piedmont Triad Region, recently announced plans to release an RFP in an effort to improve regional connectivity.

According to the News & Record, the partners are searching for a partner equipped to develop, operate, and provide Internet services over a new open access network. Hemant Desai, Chief Information Officer for Guilford County, hopes the project will spur innovative ideas from the private sector:

The goal of this project is not to restrict but enhance the deployment. Let them come back to us and say, ‘Here’s what we’ll provide you if you provide this to us.’ 

The project is a joint effort of the City of Greensboro, Guilford County, the City of High Point, the City of Burlington, North Carolina A&T State University, the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and the Piedmont Triad Regional Council. Collectively, these entities have a population of nearly 700,000 people.

A Strong Foundation

A network of this scope and scale was not envisioned by Greensboro officials when they spent $24 million to build a fiber-based communication system several years ago. At that time, the goal was to update the communication infrastructure for the city’s traffic signal equipment. In 2008 Greensboro began building its award-winning Intelligent Traffic System (ITS) comprised of 120 miles of fiber optic cables and other essential modern traffic technologies. Guilford County, High Point, Burlington, UNC-Greensboro, and North Carolina A&T all have similar traffic systems.

An ITS provides significant public safety benefits over traditional traffic communication systems. For example, the system in Greensboro controls over 450 intersections and enables sensors to turn traffic lights green for fast-moving emergency vehicles, making the roads safer for everyone while facilitating faster attention to crisis situations. 

Using Existing Dark Fiber

When an ITS is installed, managing traffic lights typically requires a fraction of the actual fiber capacity; the remaining fiber is unused or "dark." Communities like Greensboro are looking for ways to use, or "light up" the remaining dark fiber. In some cases, municipalities lease the dark fiber to providers who light it and use it to provide services to local businesses or residents. Arlington, Virginia, took advantage of an ITS project to expand its network, ConnectArlington.

While exploring options for improved broadband access in the area, community leaders in greater Greensboro learned that the ITS project could provide a backbone for a regional fiber network. The publicly owned infrastructure in Greensboro already covers more land than any network owned by any large private provider in the city. This cooperative effort will expand the network even further.

City leaders like Greensboro’s Chief Information Officer Jane Nickles consider the project an effort to improve the quality of life and a way to create opportunities for local residents:

This is not just the future, this is a platform. Cities that don’t have it, they’re going to be left in the dust.

While 6th Circuit Reviews Appeal, Organized Attack Begins In House

As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals considers the FCC's decision to roll back Tennessee and North Carolina anti-muni laws, elected officials opposed to local authority are mounting an assault to head off possible enabling legislation. Their first target is the House of Representatives.

Poison Pens

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slattery, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange all sent letters to the Chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Fred Upton (R-MI). Their letters express derision at the thought of allowing local communities the ability to make decisions for themselves when it comes to ensuring local businesses and residents have the Internet access they need.

Communities with publicly owned networks such as Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, have prospered compared to those relying only on the large incumbent cable and telephone companies like Comcast and AT&T. Data suggest access to publicly owned networks contribute to local prosperity. Nevertheless, these elected officials have chosen to support big ISPs rather than their own constituents.

Elected Officials Protecting Campaign Interests

When the FCC released its Opinion and Order scaling back state restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina, legislators backed by ISP powerhouses took up arms. They introduced bills, wrote editorials, and delivered speeches that put profits of AT&T and Comcast before the rights of Tennesseans and North Carolinians to have fast, affordable, reliable Internet access.

Tennessee Governor Haslam and North Carolina AG Roy Cooper each filed an appeal, to reverse the FCC's decision and keep the laws limiting competition in place. Those appeals have been consolidated and are being considered together in the Sixth Circuit.

According to Stop the Cap!, advocates for better local connectivity have observed the way telecomunications legislation is passed in Tennessee:

Haslam’s critics contend the governor has delegated his own power to protect the interests of large telecommunications corporations operating in his state — companies the critics claimed wrote and lobbied for a state law that established anticompetitive broadband corporate protectionism in Tennessee. Among Haslam’s top campaign contributors are AT&T and Comcast — Tennessee’s two largest telecommunications companies.

Haslam is not the only state leader to speak out who has a vested interest in keeping restrictions in place.

As Stop the Cap! notes, all four of these prominent politicians received considerable campaign contributions from powerhouse ISPs with an interest in limiting competition.

For a quick rundown, we collected some links:

Early Attack

The latest assault is an effort to head off federal action to guarantee local Internet choice. In addition to the FCC Order in February, Senator Cory Booker introduced such a bill last January with the support of Senators McCaskill and Markey. The issue has gained more attention over the past year as word spread of the benefits experienced in Chattanooga, Wilson, and other cities with publicly owned networks.

Big incumbent providers write checks to state lawmakers with one hand as they write legislation with the other. This is just one of the many problems with massive monopolies cornering the market in essential services: they have all the access they need to stifle competition. As long as this is the preferred campaign finance method, voters are the only ones who can punish elected officials who put big corporate interests ahead of local needs.

Wally Bowen, Rural Broadband Advocate, Passes

We received the sad news today that Wally Bowen, one of the leading advocates fighting to bring affordable broadband to rural communities, especially in Appalachia, recently passed away.

In addition to many other contributions, Wally served as founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network in Asheville, North Carolina. He spoke on media reform at a number of venues, including the Aspen Institute, the New America Foundation, and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA).

Having collaborated with Wally, Chris understood his passion and dedication and gave this tribute:

Wally Bowen was an inspiration in many ways. He worked tirelessly to improve Internet access in the rural mountains of western North Carolina and for media justice. When I began working in this area, Wally was already a champion of community networks and incredibly welcoming.

Over the years, I always respected him and even enjoyed our occasionally friendly disagreements because I always knew we was thinking deeply about these issues and cared so very much about connecting people that the market was leaving behind.

Because we respected Wally's work, over the years we published a number of his pieces. We already feel the void left by the loss of Wally Bowen but are encouraged by the positive results he left behind.

Other coverage celebrating Wally Bowen:

Harold Feld's Tribute to Wally: In Memoriam: Wally Bowen — Internet Pioneer, Community Activist, and A Hell of God Guy.

Free Press: Mourning Wally Bowen, a Leading Light in Bringing Communications to All

Daily Yonder: Wally Bowen: He Put Rural On The Map – And On The Internet

Wally was honored at the 2015 Parker Lecture.

Resource Central: TN and NC Appeal FCC Decision to Restore Local Authority

Nine months ago, the FCC voted to peel back laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that eliminate local authority and discourage expansion of broadband investment. As was expected, both states filed appeals and those appeals were consolidated for review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit covering Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

It has been a long and arduous journey for the parties, their attorneys, and local authority advocates. In order to help MuniNetworks.org readers stay informed of the parties and their arguments, we gathered together a collection of resources related to the original Order and the Appeal. 

Downloads of briefs are available as attachments here.

Ting! Holly Springs, NC to Get a Gig

While Google Fiber and AT&T focus on the large cities of the Research Triangle of North Carolina, the small town of Holly Springs is pursuing a third option. 

Holly Springs will be the third town to see Ting’s “crazy fast fiber Internet.” After a successful foray into the U.S. mobile service market, the Toronto-based company Ting has started to provide Internet service by partnering with local governments. Ting will offer 1 Gbps in Holly Springs by building on the town’s $1.5 million municipal fiber network. 

Muni network restricted by state law

Holly Springs, with a population of almost 30,000, has worked hard to improve its connectivity. In mid-2014, they completed a 13-mile fiber Institutional network (often called an “I-Net”) to connect the municipal buildings and other public institutions, such as schools and hospitals. 

Unfortunately, when business and residents wanted to connect to the network, a North Carolina state law prevented the town from providing Internet services directly.  As it became obvious that Google Fiber would not pass through the town, leaders worked with a consulting company to try to draw in a private Internet service provider (ISP).

Ting! Innovative Partnerships

The locked-up potential of that fiber helped attract Ting. The municipal network's unused fiber will function as a backbone for Ting to deploy its own last-mile infrastructure, which will provide connectivity directly to homes and businesses.

Ting has had success with small towns. The first Ting town was Charlottesville, Virginia, where the company bought a local ISP’s existing fiber network, improving the speeds and prices. Most recently, Ting partnered with the city of Westminster, Maryland, to expand broadband access. The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors dubbed it 2015’s “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year” and presented the partnership with an award in September. Check out our podcast conversations with Dr. Robert Wack from Westminster and Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows (parent company of Ting).

Local networks are the solution

Construction on the Holly Springs network is likely to begin in early 2016. Although not all public private partnerships prove successful, Ting’s approaches support the philosophy that communities should be empowered to make these decisions locally. Noss explained in the press release [PDF]:

The problem of slow, expensive and unreliable Internet access is national but agreements like the one reached with Holly Springs further demonstrate that the solution is local.

Fibrant Rolls out 10 Gbps, A Look At Salisbury's Challenges in FTTH

Salisbury, North Carolina's Fibrant, now holds the distinction of offering the fastest Internet access in the country. The municipal network is making 10 Gbps symmetrical connectivity available for residents and businesses.

Fibrant's first 10 Gbps customer is Catawba College, a local school that will use the ultra-fast connections for its new Digital Media Creation and Collaboration labs. In a press release Joanna Jasper, Catawba CIO stated:

"By moving to Fibrant's 10 Gbps speeds, the College is in a better position to differentiate itself. We can bring world-class broadband services to our campus community to support the next generation of educational applications."

"The future is all about rich immersive digital media and being able to communicate and collaborate with others in real-time regardless of where people are in time and space."

The city of Salisbury hopes this new standard will set it apart from other North Carolina communities and entice more economic development. From a BizJournals article:

“It helps us differentiate ourselves” among cities and states seeking technology companies, [says Kent Winrich, Director of Broadband and Infrastructure Services]. “It will attract international companies. It’s not sniping businesses from Charlotte.”

Winrich sees Salisbury attracting technology companies that need the bandwidth for real-time connections to clients and suppliers — software developers and data centers, for example.

The network, which already offers gigabit connectivity to businesses and residents for around $100 per month, has attracted several businesses to a community that once struggled with job loss. Mayor Paul Woodson told WFAE that the investment in Fibrant grew out of necessity:

"All we were trying to do was differentiate ourselves from other cities. We lost our mills, we lost our furniture factories. We decided we need to do something to replace the manufacturing the whole country was losing, not just Salisbury, the whole country, so that’s how we got started."

Listen to the entire WFAE story below and check out episode #168 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast for a conversation between Chris and Kent Winrich, Salisbury Director of Broadband and Infrastructure.

Salisbury has had to deal with a variety of challenges, having built the network during the worst economic downturn in 70 years and seeing Time Warner Cable slash its prices to undermine the municipal network. We thought the following background would be helpful.

Salisbury is located in west central North Carolina and home to approximately 34,000 people. In the early 2000s, the community suffered from high unemployment and businesses could not get the connectivity they needed from incumbents. There were key commercial areas in town that had no Internet access at all. Local leaders hoped the network would spur economic development an area that had previously been known for textile and other manufacturing.

Incumbent providers Time Warner Cable (TWC) and AT&T did not see enough profitability to justify upgrades, so community leaders had to take action without them.

seal-north-carolina_0.jpgIn 2005 the city began to investigate the idea of a municipal fiber network. An early survey suggested 30 percent of households would purchase at least one service from the city by the end of year three - TV, telephone, or Internet access. The local community expressed support for the project, including businesses, potential anchor institutions, and residents.

The city issued approximately $29 million in revenue bonds to finance its network deployment in November 2008. At the time of the issue, Moody's rated Salisbury at A-1 and Standard & Poor listed the city as A-plus which are equivalent ratings and considered "investment grade."

As plans moved forward, a series of setbacks delayed deployment and launch. Even though the city reached an agreement with AT&T to place city fiber on the incumbent's poles, preparing the poles took longer than expected. Synchronizing audio and video proved to be a challenge at first due to software glitches and there were also problems with remote controls accompanying set-top boxes. 

Incumbent Time Warner Cable, however, was able to take advantage of its substantial market share and cross subsidize to offer exceptionally low prices in the region. Certainly the stiff competitive prices negatively affected Fibrant's ability to reach its subscription goals.

In 2014, two bond rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, downgraded the bond rating for the city, citing financial struggles with the Fibrant network as a major factor in the decision. As Moody’s wrote, the city’s reduced bond rating from Aa2 to A3...

“...primarily incorporates the city's outsized enterprise risk associated with its broadband enterprise (Fibrant), with considerable operating pressure should the Fibrant continue to underperform.” 

Moody's also based its rating on the city's decision to redirect $7.6 million from its sewer and water enterprise fund to support the network. The investor service described the city's situation as "a narrowed but still acceptable cash position for the water & sewer fund."

Moody's decision to downgrade, we should note, came after a decision by Standard & Poor to upgrade, which sheds some light on the fragile and complicated bond rating process.

In 2011, North Carolina was also a battleground for TWC's intense lobbying efforts to block initiatives like Fibrant through state legislation. TWC managed to push through a restrictive bill that negatively impacted municipal networks, including Fibrant, by limiting its ability to expand.

Nevertheless, Fibrant has slowly and steadily added customers bringing subscribership to 3,000 in the summer of 2014 and in December reported that 3,200 customers took Fibrant service. By that time, Fibrant was already offering gigabit service for around $100 per month, having upgraded top tier customers to gigabit symmetrical speeds with no rate increase.

According to Winrich, the switch to even faster speeds was not as difficult as one might expect:

"We changed out our router and realized we could actually bump this up, and be the first city in the world to do it. And we were just scratching our heads going, ‘really, we’re going to be the first ones?’ And we kept checking with everyone we knew, and they said ‘we don’t know of anybody.’ So, we just jumped all over it and it was really very easy to do. Surprisingly easy to do."

Rates will vary but will cost around $400 per month, approximately $100 per month higher than the 2 Gbps residential service recently announced by Comcast. In other words, 25 percent higher for 5 times the speed with the added bonus of reliability from a local provider that cares about the welfare of its community.

An increasing number of communities are considering the benefits of municipal networks and places with 1 Gbps offerings have an even greater advantage. The ability to offer 10 Gbps lets businesses know that Fibrant has an entrepreneurial approach just as their business customers do; Salisbury is positioning itself and the region for the future:

“This whole area could be so vibrant, and Salisbury would be in the center of it,” [Winrich] says.