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Our Opinion: Wilson lobbies for Greenlight’s uncertain future

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Greenlight’s fiber optic broadband network may be underground, but for the Wilson City Council, it’s looking more and more like a highwire.

City leaders are walking a tightrope as they balance their desire to keep Vick Family Farms in rural Nash County and 200 customers in the Edgecombe County town of Pinetops connected to Greenlight with their obligation to obey a federal court ruling that blocks the municipal broadband service from branching out beyond county lines.

The council agreed Thursday night to provide six months of free internet access and phone service to Greenlight customers outside Wilson County while Wilson lobbies the General Assembly for permission to keep the town connected on a permanent basis.

Officials say waiving customers’ fees places Greenlight in compliance with a 2011 state law preventing municipal broadband networks from selling their services outside local boundaries. While Wilson exploits the apparent loophole, it’s working with state Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, and Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, to secure a legislative exception for its out-of-county customers.

“We are committed to making sure we can find a way for Pinetops and Vick Family Farms to continue to have high-speed internet at this critical time,” Martin said in a statement. “It is important for Pinetops to be able to use Greenlight in its recovery from Hurricane Matthew. And this is the most critical time for Vick Farms, right in the middle of harvest season.”

Pinetops residents and Vick will not have Greenlight cable television during the six-month emergency extension. City officials said the wholesale internet and telephone service providers agreed to waive Greenlight’s service fees for the area. The cable service is too expensive to give away.

Wilson extended Greenlight to customers within its electric service area early this year, relying on a 2015 Federal Communications Commission ruling that gave the city presumptive permission to disregard a state law limiting the service to municipal boundaries. That law already had a carve-out for Greenlight that extended its service area from the city limits to the entirety of Wilson County.

In August, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC overstepped. While the federal agency regulates telecommunications and has a congressional mandate to promote competition, it has no authority to override North Carolina law. Cities and towns still answer to the General Assembly from which they derive their powers.

We agree with the 6th Circuit ruling and we fault the FCC for painting Wilson into the corner in which it now finds itself. The Wilson Times has long been critical of the FCC’s tendency to unilaterally expand its sphere of influence.

Decisions affecting city governments in North Carolina should be made by our elected state representatives, not by the same appointed federal bureaucrats who undermine the First Amendment by enforcing arbitrary indecency standards on radio and television.

We can’t predict whether the General Assembly will accede to Wilson’s requests when it reconvenes on Jan. 11, but the city has powerful allies in Martin and Brown, who co-chair the Joint Legislative Economic Development and Global Engagement Oversight Committee.

Martin is running for re-election in House District 8, which includes portions of Wilson and Pitt counties. While we hope her Democratic opponent, Charlie Pat Farris, would continue to advocate on Greenlight’s behalf if he prevails in next month’s general election, he would not inherit Martin’s committee assignments or chairmanships.

Brown, the current Senate majority leader, is running unopposed, though he would lose his leadership position if Democrats take control of the state Senate.

The fate of Wilson’s lobbying efforts can be better gauged after voters make their choice. We call on Wilson County’s legislative delegation — no matter its future composition — to support the city’s bid for Greenlight expansion.

Until the dust settles on Election Day and lawmakers return to Raleigh, city leaders will continue to walk the tightrope.

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