The days of free broadband service in Pinetops are likely numbered as legislators work to push through a long-term solution.
“Conversations have been taking place amongst various stakeholders in an attempt to find a mutually agreeable solution, which has been challenging,” said Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson. “There has been strong opposition from the telecommunications industry to any additional exemptions being added under state law 160A-340.2”
That law outlines the provision of communication services by cities, which currently limits the city of Wilson’s service area to the county lines. The current predicament of what will happen to the customers of Greenlight Community Broadband in Pinetops and Vick Family Farms in Nash County was created last year after the Federal Communications Commission sided with Wilson’s efforts to expand public access to digital technology.
In August, a federal court ruled the FCC didn’t have the authority to override state law and barred Greenlight from serving customers beyond the county lines.
Officials contemplated cutting off Pinetops customers, but reached an agreement in October to thread a loophole in the regulation by providing free service for Vick Family Farms and customers in the Edgecombe County town. Wilson City Council members limited the free service to six months while legislators worked toward a permanent solution and Martin has been one of the steadfast proponents of a compromise.
Martin has co-sponsored several efforts, including the BRIGHT Futures Act, to promote digital infrastructure in rural North Carolina, and House Bill 396, which provides an exception for Pinetops in the law for the provision of communication services by cities. Both are in committee, but Martin said she is optimistic a bill will move to the House for a vote before the April 27 crossover deadline. Legislation that does not pass in the chamber where it originated by that date becomes ineligible for consideration.
Meanwhile, Pinetops Town Commissioner Suzanne Coker Craig said residents are hopeful a solution will be reached that will let them keep their service through Greenlight. She said a representative of Suddenlink Communications came to a March town council meeting to discuss bringing high-speed broadband to Pinetops, but officials and residents were leery.
“They’ve never shown an interest in serving Pinetops, even when they’ve built infrastructure within a few miles of town, yet now they want to bring it even though it isn’t as good as Greenlight,” Craig said. “The guy who spoke was very ugly about Greenlight and ‘taxpayer-subsidized service.’ It seemed like they wanted to just show legislators that they were offering it, but we really didn’t have any confidence it would go through or if it did, the rates wouldn’t get jacked up high within a few months.”
One of the proposals that has been pitched is that the Greenlight infrastructure in Pinetops would be leased to a private company.
“Pinetops residents have heard about alternatives and have continued to request keeping Greenlight as an option,” Martin said.
Craig said she’s heard from residents who refuse to go back to other providers.
“It is bad to try to go back to a terrible service when you’ve had a really good service,” she said. “Several of us have invited the legislators or anyone who thinks the service is OK to come to Pinetops and spend a day trying to work on the internet.
“Run your business on it and you’ll understand.”
She describes the potential for state legislators to take away the good service as “unfathomable.”
Martin’s efforts aren’t the only ones in the General Assembly pertaining to Pinetops. Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, introduced House Bill 510 in March to end Greenlight’s service to Pinetops by Oct. 6. That bill is in committee and Collins was not available for comment by press time.
As for Wilson, the city council’s six-month window to provide free service to Pinetops is reaching an end this month. City spokeswoman Rebecca Agner said officials are waiting for the General Assembly to make a move, with no local action planned.
As for Pinetops, Craig said high-speed broadband is essential to economic development.
“If we lose Greenlight, we lose a great economic development tool and, especially in today’s market, that would be devastating to our town,” she said.