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Wilson's Greenlight Leads North Carolina in Connectivity: Community Broadband Bits Episode #70

Greenlight, a muni FTTH network in eastern North Carolina's city of Wilson, is proving to be a powerful tool in attracting new residents and businesses. We spoke with General Manager Will Aycock about the network and how it has benefited the community.

Our interview covers a number of subjects, including how the network is attracting new residents to the area and helping businesses to be more competitive in part by providing an incredibly reliable product - more than five years without an outage to its major commercial subscribers.

The schools in the entire County are connected, allowing them to take advantage of all major technological innovations. First responders, especially fire fighters, are better able to train and respond to incidents because of benefits from the fiber network. All this and more in the audio below.

We previously published a case study of Wilson's Greenlight and also wrote about how Time Warner Cable responded to the network by lobbying for a law to make sure no other community could copy Wilson. And last year, we interviewed Catharine Rice about that law in episode 5 of this series.

Read the transcript of this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Mudhoney for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

WUNC Radio Show Explores Muni Network Restrictions in North Carolina

WUNC, a public radio station out of Chapel Hill in North Carolina, covered community owned networks and broadband availability on its recent "State of Things" midday program. I was a guest along with a local resident and a public relations executive from Time Warner Cable to discuss North Carolina's broadband compared to other states and its law that effectively bans local governments from building networks.

The discussion is good, though I certaily could have done a better job. Ultimately I thought the host did a good job of bringing in each guest to make their points, though Time Warner Cable was totally unprepared to talk about how North Carolina can expand access. Instead, they talked about the cable giant's requirements to invest in networks in rural areas.

We are going to follow up on these points but for now wanted to make sure you have a chance to listen to the show. Our coverage of the bill discussed in the radio show is available here.

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. 

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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.

Holly Springs, North Carolina, Looking to Save with Municipal Network

The Town Council of Holly Springs, North Carolina, just voted to pursue municipal network infrastructure. The Holly Spring Sun reports that the proposed network would include Town Hall, a local business park, the wastewater treatment plant, and school facilities. Wi-fi would be available in parks and public facilities. Holly Springs is about 25,000 people in the center of the state near Research Triangle Park.

The City is pursuing a plan focused on cost-savings for community anchor institutions - North Carolina law effectively prohibits local governments from connecting businesses or residents. However, local governments can still serve schools, libraries, public safety, and the like. We have previously released a fact sheet with some of the savings other communities have seen from these investments.

Council members expressed concern over the current cost of service from private providers and expected hikes in rates:

“It’s going to continue to be more expensive for us,” said Councilman Tim Sack said, for something “that’s going to be less than what we need and more than we can afford.”

The cost for the project could range from $1.3-$1.5 million for a connection to all town facilities, [IT Director Jeff]Wilson said.

WUNC reports that CTC Technology and Energy will design the network. Joanne Hovis, CTC President, noted that the town will not offer services but building the infrastructure will hopefully encourage competition. 

From WUNC:

Holly Springs mayor Dick Sears says the council believes the town can break even by shifting funds from its current Internet service.

"I think we all felt that, yes, this would be a pay-for-itself kind of an option to take, so we're in-the-works process. But at the same time, we heard enough good news during that presentation that we want to continue the process," Sears says.

More specifically, from the CTC report,

[I]f the Town invests in its own fiber, in the “worst case” scenario, the cost of financing this infrastructure would be comparable to continuing to pay for leased services. CTC projects a cost savings between $922,000 and $1.1 million resulting from the Town building 1 Gbps circuits to each of its facilities.

Accusation of Corruption in Favor of Time Warner Cable in North Carolina General Assembly

Veteran North Carolina legislator Rober Brawley resigned as Chairman of the state Finance Committee, reports local WRAL. According to WRAL's @NCCapitol blog, the Republican from Iredall read his resignation letter during a recent floor debate. He criticized Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, questioning Tillis' ethics and accusing him of special legislative favors specifically for Time Warner Cable.

One bone of contention was a bill introduced by Brawley to expand the service area for the municipal cable network MI-Connection in Mooresville. From the letter as quoted in the article:

"You slamming my office door shut, standing in front of me and stating that you have a business relationship with Time Warner," Brawley wrote. "MI Connections is being operated just as any other free enterprise system and should be allowed to do so without the restrictions placed on them by the proponents of Time Warner."

Stop the Cap covered the background of that bill in its article about this accusation:

House Bill 557, introduced by Brawley, would have permitted an exception under state law for the community-owned MI Connection cable system to expand its area of service to include economic development sites, public safety facilities, governmental facilities, and schools and colleges located in and near the city of Statesville. It would also allow the provider to extend service based on the approval of the Board of County Commissioners and, with respect to schools, the Iredell County School Board.

In 2010 - 2011, Tillis received $37,000 from the telecommunications industry including a $1,000 contribution each from AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon. At the time of the contribution, Tillis had already won an election in which he ran unopposed and session was just about to start. He is a darling of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council which exists to help corporations rewrite state laws in their favor.

Shortly thereafter, lawmakers passed HB 129 and created insurmountable barriers for local communities interested in building publicly owned telecommunications networks. Other Republican lawmakers who supported the bill received significant contributions from the same clique. We now know Tillis is willing to honor his "business relationships."

Brawley is no stranger to controversy. He introduced a bill this session that would have eased many ethics reforms passed in recent years. Included in the proposed changes was a repeal on a ban of gifts from lobbyists and relaxing requirements that lobbyists disclose those gifts. Earlier this year, Brawley stated to an @NCCapitol reporter:

"I believe in the integrity of people, including legislators and, in over 30 years of serious involvement, have not seen any situation that these [ethics] laws would have prevented or improved."

For those of us who have watched the way Time Warner Cable and others have corrupted the political process in many states, these allegations come as no surprise but are noteworthy for who is making them and the specific allegation of a "business relationship" between Time Warner Cable and the Speaker of the House.

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.

SEATOA Conference Set for March 21st-22nd

This March 21-22, the SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (SEATOA) will be hosting the "Networking Communities for the New South" conference. The conference will be held at the Omni Charlotte Hotel.

We are excited to see Susan Crawford as the keynote speaker. From the conference page:

She will provide a broadband policy reality check, and answer – among other questions –whether current so-called “level playing field”, “free-market” policies are leaving us with a second class network that only the rich can afford.

(For a preview, listen to Susan in a recent Broadband Bits Podcast. She talked about her recent book and discussed the need for long term U.S. telecom policy change.)

Check out the schedule and list of other speakers [PDF] and start planning your itinerary. You can also register online.

Some of the issues discussed will be:

  • Public and private resources
  • How to offer services to schools and other government institutions as a way to save costs and yet build a platform for high bandwidth use
  • Info on the Research Triangle Park's North Carolina Next Generation Network, (NCNGN - sounds like NC Engine)
  • The National Public Safety FirstNET and municipal network
  • How to build, operate, and integrate social media into, local Public, Education and Government (PEG) channels, and into your organization's lobbying campaigns to obtain optimal reach

Op-Ed: NC In Bottom of Broadband Barrel

Common Cause's Todd O'Boyle and myself have just published an opinion piece in the North Carolina News & Observer to highlight the foolishness of the General Assembly revoking local authority to build broadband networks.

Todd and I teamed up for a case study of North Carolina's most impressive fiber network, Greenlight, owned by the city of Wilson and then turned our attention to how Time Warner Cable turned around to lobby the state to take that right away from communities. That report, The Empire Lobbies Back, was released earlier this month.

An excerpt from our Op-Ed:

The Tar Heel economy is continuing its transition from tobacco and textiles to high technology. Internet startups populate the Research Triangle, and Charlotte’s financial services economy depends on high-quality data connections. Truly, next-generation Internet connections are crucial to the state.

It is deeply disturbing that the Federal Communications Commission ranks North Carolina at the bottom nationally – tied with Mississippi – in the percentage of households subscribing to a “basic broadband” connection. The residents and businesses of nearly every other state have superior connections.

Read the whole thing here.

After Buying NC Legislation, AT&T Kills NC Jobs

When the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill written by the cable and telephone industry (with help from ALEC), they probably didn't expect AT&T to turn around and slash its local workforce.

And yet, that is what AT&T has done: "Hey North Carolina, thanks for that monopoly, hope you don't mind if we move a bunch of jobs down to Alabama."

We had just published our report on how Time Warner Cable and AT&T bought anti-competition legislation in North Carolina when we heard the layoff news.

Unfortunately, there is no real surprise there -- the big telecom firms are much better at slashing jobs than creating them. The increased profits from the consolidation that creates such big firms arise specifically from eliminating jobs. To AT&T, the workers in Greensboro are inefficient. After all, AT&T is a global company -- those call service jobs could be done in Birmingham or India.

If the networks serving Greensboro and surrounding communities were locally owned, particularly if owned by the communities themselves, the support jobs would almost certainly be local. That may strike AT&T as inefficient, but perfect efficiency by that definition leaves most of us unemployed.

The question for North Carolina is when it will recognize that its own best interests lie far from the best interests of Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink. If North Carolina wants to be a leader in the digital age, it has to let its communities decide for themselves if slow DSL and cable connections cut it or whether they would prefer to build their own blazing-fast, low cost networks like Wilson's Fiber Optic Greenlight.

Take a minute help us spread our graphic on Facebook today, about North Carolina's dumb decision. If you want to stay in the loop when these companies threaten states with restrictive laws, sign up on DecideLocally.com to get occasional alerts.