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The Town That Had Free Gigabit Internet

Pinetops, North Carolina’s fight to get municipal broadband demonstrates how far Big Telecom will go to keep its monopoly.

Kaleigh Rogers

Kaleigh Rogers

Image: Watson Brown/Flickr

The plan was to be one of America's littlest gigabit cities. Pinetops, North Carolina, was finally getting hooked up to high-speed fiber internet that would deliver 1 gigabit per second speeds to homes and businesses across the rural community.

But a series of convoluted laws and court decisions created a scenario in which residents of tiny Pinetops (population: 1,300) received some of the fastest internet in the United States for six months—absolutely free.

Pinetops is like dozens of communities across the US that have limited, insufficient, or straight-up no access to high-speed internet, which the Federal Communication Commission defines as offering a minimum of 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3mbps upload speeds.

Nestled in the coastal plains of eastern North Carolina, Pinetops benefits from having a relatively concentrated population in a small area—the whole town is about one square mile. Plenty of nearby communities are too expansive and underpopulated (think country roads with only two farms on it, three miles apart) to make installing broadband cost effective for major internet service providers, or ISPs. Yet even Pinetops struggled to get high-speed connections due to the size of the population.

Read more: The City That Was Saved by the Internet

About 19 million Americans still don't have access to broadband, according to the FCC. In many cases, even rural communities that are considered to have "access," don't really. Internet is spotty, expensive, and usually comes with tiny data caps that prevent service from being practical for any modern day needs.

The only option left? Cut off Pinetops, or just let it keep the gigabit internet for free.

And it goes beyond just being able to binge-watch Riverdale on Netflix. A lack of internet access hurts businesses, hinders education, prevents people from getting jobs, and can even be life-threatening. This is why towns like Pinetops fought so hard to find a solution. For Pinetops, that was municipal broadband, where the local government runs its own ISP and delivers it to paying customers, similar to how electricity utilities work. Their provider: the nearby town of Wilson.

"We had incredible service," Suzanne Coker Craig, a town commissioner in Pinetops and local business owner, told me recently at a rural broadband summit in Ohio. "You would not believe how excited our folks were."

Pinetops and Wilson are close neighbors. Image: Google Maps

Wilson is about 20 miles from Pinetops, just across the county line. The small city (population 50,000) has long supplied nearby towns with utilities like water and electricity, so when Wilson launched its municipally-run fiber optic broadband network called Greenlight in 2008, Pinetops was eager to get hooked up.

But just as Wilson was preparing to expand the program in 2011, North Carolina passed House Bill 129: the "Level Playing Field" act, which was supported by Big Telecom lobbyists. This put tight restrictions on any town hoping to start its own municipal broadband, and reined in existing systems under the thinking that it was unfair for the government to compete in the open market with private businesses. After the law was passed, Wilson was not allowed to bring high-speed internet to Pinetops.

"From our perspective, municipal broadband networks do not create competition in the long run," a spokesperson for CenturyLink, one of the ISPs that provided some service in the area, told me via email. "Rather, they replace it because public investment in government-owned networks drives out private sector investment and undermines an already-challenging business case for bringing broadband to certain areas."

But locals argued the current providers weren't really competing at all, with many people unable to get access or stuck with expensive, slow connections.

"I asked the owner of the drugstore what internet speeds he was paying for and he told me he had no idea but he had asked for the fastest available," Coker Craig said. "He was paying for 10Mbps, and he wasn't getting 10, he was only getting about six."

For contrast: I just tested my internet speed at the VICE office here in Brooklyn, where it was sitting around 90Mbps. Netflix recommends at least 5Mbps to stream HD videos.

"It was the only alternative we had to disconnecting our neighbors"

So Pinetops and Wilson officials brought to case to the FCC, which pre-empted the act in 2015, ruling that the state law had overstepped. Wilson moved quickly and, by April 2016, more than 200 Pinetopians were receiving lightning-fast gigabit internet to their homes and workplaces.

Big Telecom swung back, suing the FCC and getting its decision overturned by the Sixth Circuit last year. The state law was back in effect, and Wilson was once again prohibited from selling its services outside Wilson County. Pinetops is in Edgecombe County, only five miles beyond the county line, but far enough to prohibit Wilson from sending its broadband there. The only option left? Cut off Pinetops, or just let it keep the gigabit internet for free. Wilson chose the latter, and got to work with state legislatures to find a more sustainable solution.

"While the short term fix is not perfect, it was the only alternative we had to disconnecting our neighbors," said Wilson Mayor Bruce Rose in a press release. "Taking broadband service from the people of Pinetops would have been a terrible blow, especially when they are still recovering from Hurricane Matthew."

Finally, in June of this year, North Carolina passed a new law that allows Pinetops to keep its municipal broadband internet—as long as no private companies would like to set up shop. The bill states: "the provision of communication services in such areas [must be] terminated by a date which is 30 days after the date retail service is first available in the area from a competitive provider of communications service that will provide Fiber to the Premises service."

Over the last few weeks, gigabit service has expanded in Pinetops, and people are once again—happily—paying for the access.

"We had it and they wanted to take it away," Coker Craig said. "Our folks are very excited to have it back."

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