Red light for Greenlight

Court rules against municipal broadband in Pinetops

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Engineering supervisor Donald Richardson works in the temperature controlled network server and switching facility at Greenlight.
Engineering supervisor Donald Richardson works in the temperature controlled network server and switching facility at Greenlight.
Times File Photo
A federal court on Wednesday put the kibosh on high-speed internet access in Pinetops through Wilson’s Greenlight Community Broadband.

“Quite naturally, we were disappointed,” said Pinetops Town Administrator Lorenzo Carmon. “We believe Pinetops deserves to have high-quality internet access, and that is what Greenlight provided, so we’ll have to wait and see how this all pans out.”

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals handed down the ruling Wednesday, but the case was argued in March — one month before Pinetops got the figurative and literal Greenlight for broadband services. Since starting service in the small Edgecombe County town, about 200 customers have signed up, so the judgment puts their presence on the information superhighway in question.

Greenlight officials said customers in Pinetops will not immediately lose access as the decision is reviewed, but disconnection could happen.

“There is a possibility we could have to withdraw the broadband service from Pinetops, but it will depend on what happens next,” said Greenlight General Manager Will Aycock. “If we have to, we’ll work with partners to do so as painlessly as possible.”

Carmon said the other options for Pinetops residents and businesses pale in comparison with Greenlight services.

“This is a digital economy that we are a part of even though Pinetops has a population of about 1,500 people,” he said. “We’re still a part of the global economy, and having high-speed access to that through the internet helps us to stay competitive.”

The Federal Communications Commission sided with Wilson last year when the state barred the city from expanding broadband access beyond the Wilson County line. A 2011 state law limits municipal broadband agencies’ service area to city boundaries but includes a carve-out for Wilson that allows Greenlight to serve customers throughout the county.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said Wednesday’s decision “halts the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that broadband has provided.”

“The efforts of communities wanting better broadband should not be thwarted by the political power of those who, by protecting their monopoly, have failed to deliver acceptable service at an acceptable price,” Wheeler said in a statement. “The FCC’s mandate is to make sure that Americans have access to the best possible broadband. We will consider all our legal and policy options to remove barriers to broadband deployment wherever they exist so that all Americans can have access to 21st century communications.”

According to court documents, the FCC argued that municipal broadband expansion promotes competition.

“In response to Wilson’s entry into the broadband market, Time Warner held rates steady in Wilson while simultaneously raising rates in places without such competition,” the appellate ruling states.

Greenlight began providing service in Wilson in 2008, then began limited expansion into the county in 2010, with about 8,000 customers currently served through Greenlight. Officials received numerous requests from Pinetops officials to expand into the town for years, so when an upgrade to the electrical infrastructure to provide wholesale power to the town was approved, broadband was included in the project.

“Feedback has been absolutely stellar,” Aycock said. “It has been extremely well received in the community.”

If the decision is upheld and Greenlight is disconnected from Pinetops, the $85,000 worth of infrastructure that was paid for through the utility’s enterprise fund will remain and be paid off by Greenlight customers within a year. As for litigation costs for the project, the FCC footed the majority of the expenses with Wilson contributing to the cause, but the amount of local cost was not immediately available.

“While we continue to review the decision, it appears to halt the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that community broadband has provided in Tennessee and North Carolina,” Wheeler said. “In the end, I believe the Commission’s decision to champion municipal efforts highlighted the benefits of competition and the need of communities to take their broadband futures in their own hands.”

Wheeler said the FCC will analyze the ruling before deciding whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

While Circuit Judge Helene White concurred with Circuit Judge John M. Rogers and District Judge D.J. Hood in part of the decision, she expressed her dissent with other elements of the ruling, such as the authority of the FCC.

“If the FCC finds that advanced telecommunications capability is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion, ‘it shall take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market,’” White wrote in her opinion. “Thus, if telecommunications resources are not being reasonably and timely deployed, the FCC is director to remove barriers and promote competitions.”

Rebecca Agner, Wilson communications and marketing director, said she was hopeful a resolution could be reached to continue broadband service to the historically underserved community.

“We’ll know more about the impact to them in the coming weeks,” Agner said. “They’ve waited and waited for this, so it is heartbreaking to think about ending that, but we’ll comply with state law.”

bhandgraaf@wilsontimes.com | 265-7821