How a telecom-backed law and a recent court decision conspired to give a small North Carolina city infinitely worse internet


The Daily Dot

Feels like we only go backwards.

As time progresses, internet speeds are supposed to get faster. The broadband options a city has in 2017 are supposed to be better than what it was available in 2016. However, in a matter of weeks, broadband service in the small rural of city of Pinetops, North Carolina is likely to get markedly worse.

Pinetops has found itself caught in the crossfire in a pitched battle between activists who advocate for the government to fill in gaps in the nation's broadband infrastructure and telecom industry-backed lawmakers intent on preventing municipal broadband efforts from competing with incumbent private providers.

In recent years, state legislatures across the country have passed a slew of laws—many of which were based on model legislation originally drafted by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council and lobbied for by the large, corporate internet service providers—throwing roadblocks in the way of municipalities creating their own broadband networks. These networks—like the ones Chattanooga, Tennessee and Lafayette, Louisiana—often provide faster speeds at lower prices than private alternatives.

Last year, as part of its effort to increase broadband accessibility across the country, the FCC issued an order circumventing some of those state laws. “You can't say you’re for competition, but deny local elected officials the right to offer competitive choices,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement about the FCC's move. “As they say in North Carolina, 'that dog won’t hunt.'”

Wheeler referenced North Carolina because the FCC's first assault on state-level anti-municipal broadband centered around the city of Wilson, North Carolina's desire to begin offering Greenlight, its municipal, gigbit-speed, fiber-to-the-home internet service that had been available to surrounding communities undeserved by the private sector—specifically, the small town of Pinetops.

"It had been a longstanding request from Pinetops asking for Greenlight service,” explained Rebecca Agner, the communications director for the city of Wilson. “We had been unable to serve them for many years. But then the window was open due to the FCC's intervention. We went ahead and, during that window, began service to Pinetops.”

Wilson officials voted in December to bring Greenlight to Pinetop and started formally offering service in April. 

Last month, a panel of judges on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the FCC's order. “The FCC order essentially serves to re-allocate decision-making power between the states and their municipalities,” the court wrote in its decision.

“This is shown by the fact that no federal statute or FCC regulation requires the municipalities to expand or otherwise to act in contravention of the preempted state statutory provisions. This preemption by the FCC of the allocation of power between a state and its subdivisions requires at least a clear statement in the authorizing federal legislation.”

The FCC has elected not to challenge the court's ruling.

On Thursday, the Wilson's city council voted unanimously not to request a review of the court's decision. As a result, the council also decided that Greenlight would be withdrawing broadband service from its just over 200 customers in Pinetops and cease providing all broadband services outside of Wilson county.

Noting that the availability gigabit broadband service increases the value of a home in the community by eight percent, Pinetops' city council passed a resolution calling on the North Carolina Gov. Pat McCory, the state's General Assembly, the FCC, and the city of Wilson to do everything they can to ensure that Pinetops residents have the ability to purchase high-quality, high-speed broadband internet service.

“The economic future of my rural community improved immediately when we gained access to Wilson's broadband service. Compared to what we have been receiving from the incumbent, access to Greenlight services was like being catapulted from the early 1990s into the 21st century,” Pinetops Mayor Steve Burress wrote in an open letter.

“Our small businesses and residents have saved hundreds of dollars and significantly increased their productivity because of the reliable and super fast Greenlight speeds. Our town commissioners also began planning a new economic development strategy, because as a Gigabit fiber community we became newly competitive in the region for attracting creative class and knowledge workers.”

“We can see that the state's urban area are going to attract private sector Gigabit providers like Google Fiber,” Burress charged. “Those urban areas have the density and income levels. Our rural areas, in contrast, are being left behind. So the primary effect of... [the law anti-municipal broadband law passed by the North Carolina legislature] now it prevents capable municipal broadband providers from serving our rural communities.”

Greenlight's withdrawal from Pinetops won't happen immediately. Customers in Pinetops will be given a few weeks to find a different service provider. Service will be discontinued on Oct. 28. After that date, the broadband options left for Pinetops will be significantly worse that they were the day before.

Agner explained that the decision not to attempt to appeal the court's decision largely came down to cost. “We are a municipality, so we don't have the unlimited legal budget for that,” she noted. “But then it also became, as our lawyers and our leadership read the court decision, it became very much an issue of federal authority versus states rights. Really, for us, we want to provide the best broadband service we can—that's our core mission.”

“We wanted to help our neighbors when we can,” Agner continued. “We wanted to help them bring economic development into Eastern North Carolina, but we really don't want to get into the larger conversation over states rights over the authority of the federal vote.”

Chris Mitchell, a municipal broadband activist at the Institute For Local Self-Reliance, told the Daily Dot that he hoped the North Carolina legislature would repeal the law. However, failing that, he hopes that Pinetops is granted an exemption because the service has already been rolled out.

Mitchell also pointed out an irony in the current situation. “Wilson has said they would continue to use the fiber for electrical purposes,” he explained. “People will still have fiber on the side of their house. The businesses that employs all of those people will still have fiber from Wilson connecting it, but they will not be allowed to use it for the internet.”

After years of unsuccessfully attempting to forge public-private partnerships with telecom companies like Time Warner Cable and Embarz, Wilson voted to build it own municipal broadband network nearly a decade ago. By 2011, Greenlight the only internet service provider in the state offering gigibit speeds to residential customers.

Once Greenlight was up and running, other providers in the area lowered their rates in the city, while hiking prices elsewhere in the region. This pattern is one that's been echoed elsewhere in the country—when cities and counties build their own networks, private ISPs respond by offering faster and cheaper service in order to compete.

report released by the federal Government Accountability Office, showed that municipal networks generally offer more efficient and inexpensive options than to private ISPs.

In 2013, a small rural community in central Washington state, Ephrata, had the speediest broadband of anywhere in the country due to its government-built network.

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