Bridging Divides, Building Opportunity in Rural and Urban North Carolina - Community Broadband Bits North Carolina Bonus Episode!

Early last month, before the spread of the novel coronavirus turned staying home from a quiet night in into a moral imperative, Christopher traveled to North Carolina to attend the Institute for Emerging Issues Forum at North Carolina State University. While there, he interviewed Leslie Boney, Director of the Institute for Emerging Issues. He also spoke with Darren Smith from Wilson's Gig East Exchange and Ron Townley from the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments.

We wanted to share their conversation as a special episode of the "Why NC Broadband Matters" podcast series we've been working on with NC Broadband Matters. The nonprofit organization works to connect communities across North Carolina, bringing high-quality broadband access to residents and businesses.

logo-nc-hearts-gigabit.png Christopher and Leslie discuss the Institute for Emerging Issues, and Leslie describes how they developed the theme of the forum, ReCONNECT. They talk about the importance of not only expanding broadband infrstructure but making sure people and businesses can take advantage of technology. Leslie explains why rural and urban communities rely on eachother and both deserve investment in digital inclusion.

After Leslie leaves, Darren and Ron share what's happening in Wilson and eastern North Carolina. They reflect on their experience at the forum. Darren talks about Wilson's new innovation hub, the Gig East Exchange, and how the city is building off its municipal network for economic and community development in the region. Ron describes the varying levels of connectivity in the communities that make up the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments and explains how they're working to improve braodband across northeast North Carolina.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 38 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed, at the Community Broadband Bits page, or at the NC Broadband Matters page. We encourage you to check out other "Why NC Broadband Matters" content at the podcast feed so you don't miss future bonus content that may not appear in the Community Broadband Bits Podcast feed.

Transcript below. 

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Shane Ivers for the Music: What's The Angle? by Shane Ivers - a Creative Commons Attribution (4.0) license.


Leslie Boney: There are four times as many people in urban areas who are not connected to broadband because they can't afford it as there are people who aren't connected to broadband in rural areas because they can't have it, they can't find it.

Jess Del Fiacco: We're bringing you another episode in our special Community Broadband Bits podcast series, Why NC broadband Matters. I'm Jess Del Fiacco with the Institute for Local Self- reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NC Broadband Matters is a North Carolina nonprofit. Their mission is to attract, support and champion the universal availability of affordable, reliable, high capacity internet access, which is necessary for thriving local communities, including local businesses and a local workforce, so each can compete in the global economy.

Jess Del Fiacco: The group has created the North Carolina chapter of CLIC, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice. We are working with NC Broadband Matters to produce this series, focusing on issues affecting people in North Carolina that also impact people in other regions. We have three guests on the show today. First, Christopher speaks with Leslie Boney, director of the Institute for Emerging Issues, about the importance of digital inclusion in both rural and urban areas. Then they're joined by Darren Smith of Wilson, North Carolina's Gig East Exchange, and Ron Townley of the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments. Ron and Darren discuss how broadband infrastructure is helping revitalize the economy in Wilson and beyond.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance, normally in Minneapolis, but taking a short break to visit NC State, North Carolina, a school that has been hosting a lot of really good events around broadband lately. Today I'm here at the Institute for Emerging Issues, speaking first with the director, Leslie Boney. Welcome to the show.

Leslie Boney: Thanks very much. It's great to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: We have two additional guests we're going to work in and really focus on toward the end of the show. I'm going to introduce them as they come on so you don't forget who they are, but I want to start off by asking you... we're here today at this reconnect event, and we'll have the video attached to wherever we post this podcast, but this is one of a series of really interesting events. And so maybe first, tell me about the Institute for Emerging Issues, and then I'd love to know more about the Reconnect series.


Leslie Boney: The Institute for Emerging Issues had been around for 30 plus years, and our goal every year is to come up with an issue that is either lurking around the corner or is stuck. Something that is about to hit North Carolina that we should do something about from a public policy standpoint, or we've been trying to work on and we're not really making any progress. And so that's the goal every year, and that's where we came up with this idea of a Reconnect theme.

Christopher Mitchell: And so this Reconnect theme is not just about broadband. I think it's hard probably to talk about some of these subjects without bringing broadband into it, but there's different themes that you've had different in different locations.

Leslie Boney: What we did a couple of years ago was to crowd source our next topic, and it turns out if you ask people what the biggest issue facing any state is, there are a bunch of different answers. In our case, there were 158 different biggest issues facing our state. And so we narrowed things down and as we got closer to an answer, sort of a final four of ideas, we realized that-

Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, that's a very NC state analogy.

Leslie Boney: Well, at the time we weren't participating in any bracket, and so when we got down to 32 ideas, we put things in a bracket cause it was the only bracket NC state was going to be participating in that year. That's how we started narrowing it down. And each week we'd say, "Okay, we're getting closer to the answer." We got down to the final actually five and we realized they were all similar issues.

Leslie Boney: They were all in some cases people saying, "We are not connected the way we would like to be and we'd like to do something about it." So one theme had to do with civic connection, one with rural urban connection, another one about people feeling like they're disconnected from real opportunity in their jobs, something on health, feeling like health was holding them back from being as productive as possible, and this topic on technological opportunity. But as you alluded to, almost all those topics, broadband has come up in some way or another because it's a key part of the solution on each of those topics.


Christopher Mitchell: As you frame the issue today, one of the things I found interesting was that you didn't want us to get caught in this discussion solely about infrastructure and the idea of who has a high quality connection on the side of their home today. It's much more about how are we using that.

Leslie Boney: This is a really important issue, and you and your podcast have done an amazing job of demystifying a lot of the infrastructure elements, so I'm not in any way downplaying those. Those are critical. We've got to figure out a way to solve infrastructure problems, particularly in rural areas. What we were trying to say is, if at the end of the day we have solved all the infrastructure problems and we still have, as we do, about a 60% adoption rate, that means 40% of people are not going to be able to participate in the economy that we have built for them. So we need to start thinking now about how you build an economy where everybody is legitimately able to fully participate in the economy, that high tech economy of the future, and if we do that, it happens to have huge benefits.

Leslie Boney: Huge side benefits for businesses that right now are having huge skill shortages. It's going to make huge differences for our farms. We like to have small farms in North Carolina. If we want to hold onto those small farms, they've got to be as productive as possible and there are things that technology can do for them. We're going to need workers that can retrain themselves and move up over time, and if they're going to do that, they're going to need some of those courses available to take online. It's really hard to follow online via your phone.

Christopher Mitchell: That's a comment that I was curious if I'd have a chance to explore a little bit, because I thought you made that point that the cell phones are important and we're not going to diminish them, but at the same time, im no way is that sufficient for people.


Leslie Boney: It's really hard to fill out a job application online. It's really hard to take an entire course online. It's really hard to do your homework or write a paper online simply using your phone. That's when you need a device. You need something beyond the cell phone.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the benefits of me actually coming in for this event was that I've been able to interview a number of other people and I don't know if this interview will run before or after that one, but Latricia, Dr. LaTricia Townsend who is from here at NC state as well, made the point that, for students in particular, it's not just about filling their brains with facts or thinking how to think. They're preparing them for the workforce. And if you're not familiar with using a computer on the internet, you may not be ready to join the workforce after you finish up your education.

Leslie Boney: There was a big study that came out earlier this year. It was a national study that Amazon and the US Chamber of Commerce did that looked at rural small business productivity and estimated, I'm just going to do the North Carolina breakout, I think the national number was $44 billion in underutilized potential. In North Carolina, it was $1.9 billion more, that if companies were fully utilizing technology, they would have been able to take advantage of and add to that gross state product. But when you looked at the survey of business owners, 41% of them said one of the things that was holding them back was skilled workers who knew how to work with the devices that they were hoping they would work with in the workplace. They just didn't have those skills.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious, one of the... I wouldn't even say necessarily arguments, I think some people have... You're going to think I'm crazy, but I think some people have maybe been polarized beyond what's necessary in the discussion between urban and rural, but one of the talking points has been that urban areas are where we see a lot of the progress. It's where a lot of people want to live. It's where we're seeing a lot of our universities are clustered, and frankly it's most of the economic activity now in the country. And so I want to provocatively just say, why shouldn't we just focus most of our attention on urban areas, and whatever happens in rural areas happens in rural areas?


Leslie Boney: We did a study earlier this year that looked at commuting patterns, and if you look at commuting patterns, most of the counties in North Carolina, roughly 50% of the people wake up every day and drive to another county to work. Roughly 50% of people that are working in a county have driven in from another county to work. So employers and employees no longer particularly care about county lines. Some people are choosing to live in rural areas because they're more affordable. We have a huge affordable housing problem in this state and in the nation. So in some cases, you may choose to live there because the cost of living is lower. Some cases, you may choose to live there cause you really like a rural setting, but you may want that job in an urban area. If we can get connectivity down, you can cut down on some of the commuting that's going on.

Leslie Boney: And if you have a truly connected house, you can work from home. But the same is true in urban areas. Urban areas really need rural areas for food, for water, for air, for workers. I think one of the things that we've been trying to make in this connect series is the synergies that you need to have in place. If an employer's coming in and you're trying to sell them on your workforce, you're not just selling your workforce, you're selling the county next door and the one beyond that. So one of the counties we've been working with, one of the groups we've been working with is called STEM SENC, and the point is, if you're going to recruit STEM companies to Southeastern North Carolina, that's what SENC stands for, you're going to need to draw on the entire region to do that. And that's whether the companies happened to locate in an urban area or a rural area, you're going to need each other.


Christopher Mitchell: I really like that answer. I have to say that I'm sitting here nervous because some people have never heard any of my discussions before and might think that I don't care about rural areas, and so I want to throw in there to make sure that I think it's a point that we need to discuss. But I also want to say that. To be very clear, this country had a choice in the '30s, whether or not we left rural areas behind with electricity, and not just to our credit of a sense of charity, but the fact that we connected everyone made us a much better country. And so I want to make sure that we touch on that as well, because there's a lot of different answers we can give on that, but it's really important that we understand that we are all in this together unless something very horrible happens.

Leslie Boney: Larry Irving, one of the speakers who came earlier in the day and spoke to the group, made the point that the danger, if we don't take this seriously, is another episode of Redlining where essentially we say that, well, we care about some people but we don't care about everybody, and maybe in 10, 15 years we'll get around to those other people and we'll solve the challenges that some disconnected rural areas have, or we'll solve some of the affordability issues that inner city areas have. But there's no real hurry for that.I would say that wasn't a great answer when we were doing rural electrification, it wasn't a good answer when we were trying to decide who gets loans for their houses, and it's not a good answer when it comes to talking about broadband connectivity either.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm going to bring in our other guests now and we're going to have a little bit of a bridge before we lose Leslie, but I want to introduce Darren Smith who is the manager of the Gig East Exchange for city of Wilson, North Carolina, a city that I may have done more interviews with people from than any other location on earth because it's a wonderful, wonderful place.


Darren Smith: Very true. I'd have to agree with that. I just wanted to echo what Leslie said. You know, I think about Wilson and I think about in the '30s, and they have always looked forward, and they built their own electrical grid because they realized, we have to have this because everybody else is going to have it. We have to have this to move forward, and that has always been the DNA of the city. So when you fast forward and you see what's happening with they built their own broadband, then building a coworking space like Gig East Exchange was just a natural way to go, "Okay, we know this growth is coming from Raleigh. We've got to be prepared and we've got to make sure we're offering the services. We have the type of community that people are going to want to come to." That really something I wanted to touch on. I thought he really did a good job of that.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. And we also have Ron Townley, who is the planning development director for the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments, which includes Wilson and points north and east of there.

Ron Townley: Yeah, thanks for having me here today, Chris. Yes, I wanted to echo what Leslie said. The urban rural connection's important, but you really can't take the rural option for Americans off the table. So traditionally, we've always invested in that infrastructure where there was not a capital return on investment to the private sector, whether that was water and sewer, telephones, electrification, and now we've come to the time of broadband, the new infrastructure. And for the private sector, a lot of times these return on investments do not make sense, and a public private sector partnership has to be negotiated.

Ron Townley: So coming from a region, my board of directors at the council and our five counties of North Hampton, Halifax, Edgecombe, Nash and Wilson, I've decided that the vision is really about thinking regionally, acting locally on those regional visions in order to compete globally, to keep those rural options open. Because, my family chose to live in a rural environment for the quality of life that you can find in eastern North Carolina.


Christopher Mitchell: Thank you. I want to come back and I'll ask Leslie a question, and then we're going to release you into the wild of the breakout rooms where there's a lot of interesting thinking happening. But I want to ask you, we've had a wonderful series of panels today. Is there anything that you would want to reflect on or anything that touched you more than you expected throughout the day?

Leslie Boney: Well, I think the most meaningful statistic I heard, which you've made before on your program, but I think a lot of people don't hear, is that this is not just a rural challenge. When we talk about broadband connectivity and more importantly adoption, if you look at the total number of people in the United States who are disconnected, what Larry Irvin said is that there are four times as many people in urban areas who are not connected to broadband because they can't afford it as there are people who aren't connected to broadband in rural areas because they can't have it, they can't find it. And so I think that's a meaningful way of putting it into perspective and showing that this notion of digital inclusion matters not just for rural areas, but also for urban areas. It's a rural and urban challenge ,and if we can find a way to crack the code, we've done something that is meaningful for both rural and urban America.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I think that's been a real challenge, and I would say it's largely a political challenge because it's easy to talk about rural areas and putting money into them to connect people, because they're areas that no one's ox is being gored. And when you start talking about intervening in urban areas, then someone may at least fear their ox could be gored. And so I think that's an important statistic, and I hope people will continue to recognize not just the unfortunate-ness of the number of people that don't have connections, but the lost opportunities that we're seeing. I suppose that's your job here.

Leslie Boney: I think what powerful political coalition that would be, rural America and inner city urban America. We've never tried that before. That would be really interesting. But I think it's a moral issue. Why did we do rural electrification? Not just because there was going to be an ROI, because there wasn't immediately, although I would argue over the longterm there has been, we did it because it was the right thing to do. And in this case, we believe that significant efforts to make sure that full broadband is available to everyone in the United States, but also adopted and fully taken advantage of, is the right thing to do. And that's why we should do it.


Christopher Mitchell: Well that's a wonderful way to leave us. Leslie Boney, the director of the Institute on Emerging Issues here at NC State, which is a, go wolf pack, wonderful institution that, like I said, has been doing a lot of really good work on broadband across different parts of the university. So thank you so much for time today.

Christopher Mitchell: So Ron, I'm curious then, you're representing a group of local governments more broadly across the Northeastern part of North Carolina. What are you reflecting on today? I realize listeners haven't actually seen the full day's events but did anything today strike you as surprising or in a way that you weren't expecting?

Ron Townley: I think some of the statistics are surprising and of course I'm here networking, meeting new people, looking for resources to come into the area. North Carolina is divided into 16 councils of governments or commissions, and I have 47 member governments that sit at our table, our regional table. 41 of them are municipalities, five of them are counties, over 30 of them are very small and rural in nature.

Ron Townley: And in order to succeed, we have a comprehensive economic development strategy. We all do, all the 16 members across the state. We all share some common goals, which is to build on the region's competitive advantages and leverage the marketplace to establish and maintain robust regional infrastructures, to create revitalized, healthy and resilient communities, and to develop talented and innovative people. Now what do you need to make those four goals happen? You cannot do it without broadband connectivity.


Ron Townley: And while there are areas in the region like the city of Wilson, like areas up in the Roanoke electric cooperative portions of the area, that are doing really well and making some magic happen. But there are also other areas that struggled to compete. They are starting to lose population. The participation rates and what internet is available, as was mentioned, is unaffordable in these rural areas. And so we are looking to bring regional scales and regional thinking and solutions to the table in order to try and address those issues.

Christopher Mitchell: Darren, I'm curious as well, I feel like being with the city of Wilson in some ways, I wonder if you've seen it all, but let me start with just asking you, if you took anything away today you want to share with listeners.

Darren Smith: Yeah, I really did. First of all, thanks for having me, Chris. I've got to hear you definitely talk to more of our folks in Wilson and what they're up to and what they're doing. So this is a great opportunity. The thing that stuck out to me was, there was a particular gentleman from Iowa, Zachary Hammerman, I think it was his name. I thought he did an excellent job talking about how you build a community that's such a huge part of what we're trying to do and Wilson, and what other areas of the state are doing.

Darren Smith: That really stuck out to me. And one thing in particular he said, he goes, "You might as well put a pin in Raleigh and circle a 200 mile radius. It would totally include Wilson because that's where the growth is coming." And I just thought that was really eyeopening that here's someone who's gone into a city that he moved to, that he selected and really started a community space, and really started making it happen there. What made me think of Wilson and what we're doing there is the Gig Exchange. Once Wilson started building out their broadband...


Christopher Mitchell: I'm just going to cut you off for a second. Sometimes I like to just do a quick summary and then you can correct me if I'm wrong, but for people who may not be familiar, Wilson in the late 2000s built a citywide fiber optic network to connect to every last premise. The state in 2011 decided that that was not something it wanted to encourage and not only forbade other cities from doing it, but put a fence around you, and so you have an electric utility that built the fiber network. The electric utility serves nearby counties and areas and you're not able to expand that. And so that's some context I wanted people to have.

Darren Smith: Yeah, no, and great job. You know when I look at that and it makes a natural progression for the city of Wilson because they're like, okay, we have this broadband, we need to utilize it. And at the very same time, they had been part of InnovateNC, which was a program that really brought to the forefront the city, to really think about how can we drive entrepreneurship, how can we drive innovation? And that immediately brings up that you have to have an ecosystem for that.

Darren Smith: You have to have a community to help sustain that and build it, which then immediately brings up, well, you got to have a space for this. So the exchange...

Christopher Mitchell: A physical space.

Darren Smith: A physical space, and I'll touch on a couple of things. The reason we went with Gig East Exchange and maybe for your listeners, Gig East really came out of that whole innovation discussion. The city was looking for a way to label this whole initiative, and so they started thinking about the Worley Gig Park. If your listeners are familiar with that-

Christopher Mitchell: They should Google it if they're not.

Darren Smith: They're not. They definitely need to see pictures. They thought about we're in a gig economy, thought about gigabit speed and so they came up with Gig East. East being that we're in the Eastern part of the state. That really became the symbol for the initiative in Wilson and it really is made up of three parts.

Darren Smith: We have a yearly conference. Our next one's coming up May 7th, 8th and 9th, and that is a chance to bring in thought leadership. It's a chance to bring in the Leslie's of the world to really help educate not only the local folks in our community but the region. At the same time, we do quarterly meetups to again drive people thinking about entrepreneurship, and really demystify it as much as possible, and then we have the Gig Exchange, the space. The space really is going to be, and we hope to open early May, it's a hundred year old building. The city was awarded a grant from Golden Leaf. We matched it as a city, so it makes us a little different than the over 2000-and-some coworking spaces we see across the country, in that we're not trying to make a profit. We're trying to make an impact.


Darren Smith: And that impact being, what if we had a space that entrepreneurs could come into, remote workers could come into, students could come into, people who are trying to build up their skills in this digital age could come to, and find programming and find people to exchange ideas with and exchange what they know, the people they know. That is what that exchange is about. And somebody just asked me today in the hallway, "Can you give it one word?" And I was like, "Well, I can't give it one word," but I would describe it as, it's definitely economic development is a big part of that because the city recognizes we have some strong industries with agriculture, with manufacturing, but we realize it has to be diverse. We have to have a lot of different small startup companies to help drive the economy.

Christopher Mitchell: This is a point that I feel like is important to make, and this actually gets us all back to the Institute for Emerging Issues and how do we take advantage of this. For people who aren't familiar, Wilson has no business having the economic success it's had recently. You're a city that was hard hit by the tobacco downfall, I mean major hub of the entire world tobacco industry. Majorly hit by the transition of manufacturing in many areas to other parts of the world. In many ways, I would say I work with the cities. I've probably talked to more than a hundred cities that have municipal broadband networks. Almost all of them define success as just getting to where you already are, with the jobs that you've created and the way that you've revitalized the economy. People are moving there to set up their jobs, and I feel like you're saying that's not good enough. We need to do more to figure out how to take advantage of this. That's my impression.


Darren Smith: No, and I think it's spot on. I took this role as the manager, and my main focus is putting people in that building and putting programming in that building. But I've spent the last 25 years working in technology in Raleigh and I'm getting ready to move to Wilson. That's how much I believe in what they're doing. But to your point, I think a big tip of the cap has to go to the city council, their leadership, the city manager, their leadership, because it is courageous. They've made some courageous decisions about we do not want to get left behind.

Darren Smith: This is great. We have these solid industries. How do we build off of those? How do we go and pull off of their experience, to diversify even more so that we do not get left behind? And this is most important is, it should hopefully, five to eight years from now, we want it to be a place where the young people go. There's opportunity here. I don't necessarily want to move. My family's here. I like the lifestyle here. There's opportunity for me and I don't have to move. And maybe we even pull back some of the young people that did have to leave.

Christopher Mitchell: So Ron, what I'm curious about is I feel like if I understand your situation correctly, you're sort of sitting here and on the edge of this region that you represent, you kind of have a gold mine, and you're trying to figure out how to advantage everyone in the region with the gold mine. Is that accurate?

Ron Townley: Yeah. Going back to what I talked about, about leveraging the marketplace, I actually came to North Carolina over 20 years ago in the late '90s, and moved to the Asheville greater region.

Christopher Mitchell: Which is on the Western side in the mountains.

Ron Townley: In the Western side, in the mountains. I think everybody knows a little bit about Asheville.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I'm used to playing for a national audience. Most of the people who are listening to this are probably in North Carolina and they're like, "Of course that's where it is."

Ron Townley: Right. So you know, Asheville saw that Renaissance, right? They actually struggled for a number of years as well in the remote Appalachians of Western North Carolina, and they moved forward and have achieved great success through the creative class economy, and bringing new people in and diversifying and building infrastructure, et cetera. So now the opportunity is in the Eastern North Carolina, and we've come out here to help. Wilson's a fantastic example of what's happening. And you see energy in Rocky Mount, and you see things starting to happen in Roanoke Rapids, but it's absolutely right, as tobacco country and as a place who lost a lot of industry, folks have struggled. So in leveraging that, we really need to look at the region as a whole. How to not leave the folks in North Hampton and these small towns behind and bring them together. So we've established a regional broadband task force and that's the small towns coming together.


Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, I want to paint a quick picture. This is a region in which you have a few co-ops. There's a real mix of who's providing services, right?

Ron Townley: Yes, yes. It is a very diverse population. It is about 50/50 minorities. There's a deep and rich history there that goes back for centuries, of course, and some of these towns in our region, these small towns were the first colonial towns where you could navigate the waterways of the Pamlico and Neuse rivers and Tar rivers to their farthest points where initial settlements were made.

Christopher Mitchell: And now the population, it's low enough density that we don't see very easy business models to connect everyone.

Ron Townley: Not in today's structure. Not in that 21st century economy. So our population is aging. Farms have been consolidating, kids have been moving out to find other opportunities, but there are people who want to come back into these towns and find this rural lifestyle, and it's difficult to do if you don't have the connectivity. That's question number one. I was talking to one person who bought a very large home in the rural area, and they were very excited at finding 3500 square feet of a home less than five years old for $150,000 or something like that.

Christopher Mitchell: My head's starting to hurt.

Ron Townley: But then they found out it didn't have internet. That was the reason for the price of the house. They didn't have good cell phone connectivity as well, and so that literally drives down the real estate market. So we're working with these small towns and others to try and build some regional economies of scale.

Ron Townley: We're educating local leaders about digital literacy. We're doing community surveys to understand what really are the speed rates out here in the communities and what the cost barriers are. And the ultimate goal is to map the public assets, things like water towers, and right-of-ways, and other physical things that people can bring to the public sector, can bring to a public private partnership, and attract new service providers.


Ron Townley: Because some of the major providers, quite honestly, they look at these areas and they say that return on investment isn't there. We want to legislatively hold it for the future, for that private investment to make that money, but if that's 10 years from now, that's, in my opinion, 20 years too late. So we need to form these public private partnership. I think if we can build out some of this infrastructure, getting people connected to Middle Mile, expanding Middle Mile, getting wifis on the old main streets of these small towns and things like that, you're going to see economic opportunities explode again. I think if we can go ahead, the ultimate goal of the work we're doing regionally is to have some of these small towns joined together, to offer economies of scale to these service providers, to say instead of 300 homes and five farms, we can offer you 2000 homes and 25 farms to connect to.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, aggregation is the name of the game there. For people who haven't heard it, we did an episode with Greg Coltrain with RiverStreet Networks, who very much wants to work together with those sorts of aggregated local units. But let me come back to you Darren, to just push these together. So Gig East exchange is emphatically not about Wilson, it's about the region and what can you do to help the whole region?

Darren Smith: Yeah. So we really want it to be seen as an innovation hub for the region, and we've already taken steps to go out to the universities. Our university is right 30 minutes away as well as Goldsboro, and for your listeners, this may not mean much, so we've gone out way outside of Wilson to make sure they understood this is for you too. And that's a big part of it that, hey, this is a resource for you as well. This is not just a Wilson based resource and that's what we've been trying to do to communicate to the region.

Christopher Mitchell: So you're going to launch it in three months. Have you seen any results yet?


Darren Smith: Yeah, we actually have, even though there's not even any drywall up yet, but yeah, we have. We have partnered with an organization in Raleigh called RIOT. It stands for Raleigh Internet Of Things. 10 years ago they were an organization that was really coming together to support all these people building devices to take advantage of wireless, whether it was a flood sensor, or we see it now pretty commonly, your listeners, I'm sure have seen refrigerators that now connect to the internet and they can access their shopping list. Great organization in Raleigh, they started an accelerator program about two years ago, free 12 week program, because they really saw a need that these startups, most times they have an idea or they see a need that they feel like they have a solution for but they don't know how to sell.

Darren Smith: They don't know how to market. They definitely don't know how to go pitch to a financial venture capitalist. So they started a program to accelerate their growth, accelerate their knowledge, became wildly successful as a big partner of ours. We approached them and said we're going to have this space, programming is key to success. What if we had one of your cohorts in our space? And they were like, "That's a great idea." And we said yeah, cause we could offer this to people in the Eastern part of the state that normally probably don't have access to this kind of program. And so we set out to go again to the region and educate everyone in the different towns and cities. We really hoped, because it was such a new program, if we could get four or maybe five startups to apply, we would be knocking it out of the park. We had way over 20. We literally had someone from Chicago, California, had a handful here from Research Triangle Park.

Christopher Mitchell: Just to be clear, we're sitting here in February and it's like 65 degrees outside, so Chicago isn't too surprising.

Darren Smith: I'm sure it wasn't too hard for them to get on a plane, but they got on a plane, flew to Raleigh, got on a train, came to Wilson, and so we had over 20 apply. We should hopefully make an announcement soon of who those six or seven, and we selected seven, but that's huge for something that we haven't even opened the doors yet and that program will be going in there, so that's wonderful. Yeah.


Christopher Mitchell: So Ron, let me ask you if you have any concluding comments as this has already been... I mean, it's hard to do justice to a topic this rich, but we're running out of time.

Ron Townley: Sure, sure. Well first, I just wanted to say how much we value the partnership of Gig East and Darren and the work that they're doing out there. His story is a perfect example of build it, or even say you're going to build it and they will come. So that's important I think for these small towns as well. We're getting libraries connected. Schools are connected, main streets are starting to do wifi in these small towns. There are small entrepreneurial startup providers. We've got an internet service provider now, that is literally a mom and pop company. They're climbing the poles themselves and they've connected up a town, they're improving infrastructure in another town. And they're going down the road to hit the town down the street. And so they've found that entrepreneurial opportunity to create.

Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, I just want to jump in because I feel like sometimes there's a tension in that, and I want to salute that entrepreneurial activity. At the same time, it's not always clear that that's going to be what's going to solve the longterm economic interests of the community. And I just want to make sure people have a sense that we want to celebrate people solving those problems, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the problem is totally solved for everyone at that point.

Ron Townley: Oh no, we've got a long way to go. We've got a long way to go, and people need to understand the value of the internet. I think that's one of the challenges in our aging population. Somebody shared a story with me. They had defibrillator in their heart that was connected to their wifi, that communicated with the hospital. Gentleman was about 75 years old and he woke up in the middle of the night with a jolt, and he called the hospital and he said, "I think I'm having a heart attack." And they said to him, "You've already had the heart attack. We engage the defibrillator built into your chest. You were dead. We brought you back to life."

Christopher Mitchell: You're welcome, Ironman.


Ron Townley: Right? So you know, that is the world we live in. So when we talk about people staying where they grew up, aging in place, having safety in rural communities, being able to move there and know that you have access to the world, it also revolves around telehealth.

Ron Townley: It revolves around having that conversation online with the doctors. It's not just about download speed, it's about upload speed. It's about that medical equipment communicating instantly with that hospital anywhere in the world, and that hospital being able to respond to you. And so when older folks say, "Well I don't have that," or, "I don't think that connectivity is worth the money," to know that your grandkids will first of all come more often and stay longer, but it also really revolves around your health and living that quality of life issues. And that's what rural America really offers. That's what our small towns offer, is a fantastic quality of life. But you have to have a 21st century life to go with it.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. In particular, in Eastern North Carolina, some history.

Ron Townley: Absolutely.

Christopher Mitchell: I mean in Minnesota, our antiques are like 75 years old. So thank you. Thank you so much for taking the time today, Ron and Darren.

Ron Townley: Thank you, Chris.

Darren Smith: Thanks for having me today. But I wanted to say, and Ron just touched on it, the one thing that we have found in working in East North Carolina is everybody's pulling in the same direction. Even though there's different agencies, different groups, different organizations, everyone sees the need. That's been very refreshing. But I wanted to tell your listeners, cause we've talked a lot about Gig East, tell them to go to They'll see updates on the space and they'll see what's going on in Wilson.

Christopher Mitchell: Great pictures of drywall being mudded.

Darren Smith: Absolutely. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Thank you so much.

Jess Del Fiacco: Thanks for tuning into this episode in our Why NC Broadband Matters podcast series, and for listening to the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Remember to follow Christopher on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets, and if you follow @NCheartsGB on Twitter, you'll tap into all the NC Broadband Matters material. We want to thank Shane Ivers of for the series music. What's the Angle, licensed through creative commons. And we want to thank you for listening. Until next time.