In North Carolina, no other rural community embodies the rural struggle for high-quality Internet access as well as Pinetops. At a recent hearing in D.C., one of the leading voices in Pinetops, Suzanne Coker Craig, testified before a legislative committee assembled to delve into the issue. During her short five minutes at the Communications and Technology Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Coker Craig described her town's rescue by the local municipal network and subsequent betrayal by their state legislature.
Coker Craig is the owner of the small business CuriosiTees and former Town Commissioner of Pinetops; she has the ability to examine the community's situation as a resident, a business owner, and an elected official. In her testimony, she tells the story of how the once-fading Pinetops was revitalized when its neighbor, Wilson, did the neighborly thing and provided Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to the small town.
In 2016, Pinetops worked with a nearby municipal provider, Greenlight, to bring high-speed Internet services to its 1,300 residents, giving local businesses like CuriosiTees the connectivity they need to thrive in the modern economy. The expansion was only made possible after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) preempted a restrictive state law that benefited large telecom companies. However, the State of North Carolina appealed the FCC preemption and the court reversed the ruling within the year.
As Coker Craig pointed out in her testimony, people in Pinetops lobbied their state elected officials hard to obtain an exemption to the state law in order to keep Greenlight in their community. After significant influence from big cable and telecom, the North Carolina legislature passed a bill that let Greenlight continue to serve Pinetops, but only until a private sector provider decided to enter the community. Earlier this year, Suddenlink declared its intention to enter Pinetops and in June they began deployment. As Coker Craig describes in her testimony, the people of Pinetops didn't greet Suddenlink with open arms; they're concerned that the cable company won't provide the level of service they need, especially with regard to upload speed and universal coverage. Many people in Pinetops fear they'll be forced to once again step back in time and sign up with slow, unreliable DSL from CenturyLink.
Speaking on Local Efforts
The hearing, which was on challenges and solutions to rural broadband, also included testimony from representatives of the satellite, wireless, agriculture, and healthcare industries. Rep. Marsha Blackburn chaired the committee; advocates of publicly owned Internet infrastructure are all too familiar with her past efforts to strip local communities of local authority. At the committee meeting, she appeared to continue the same philosophy by expressing in her opening statement that "...we should ensure that government based solutions complement private investment instead of competing with [private investment]."
Blackburn ended Coker Craig's testimony before she was finished, cutting her off before she was able to point out that bringing high-quality connectivity to rural areas would require some measure of local authority.
In her written statement, Coker Craig points out:
The solution to getting rural communities connected will not come from one-size fits all legislation. It will not come from waiting for large providers to come to our communities. It will certainly not happen if state legislators continue to limit creative local interventions. The solution will come from the resilient local business and municipal government leaders who know their communities and know how to find creative pathways to solve difficult problems.
The city of Wilson and Greenlight has received an offer from a private company to purchase its assets in Pinetops in order to compete with Suddenlink and allow the people in Pinetops to still access FTTH connectivity. As Coker Craig points out in her statement, "That’s great news for us, but it is beyond ridiculous the obstacles we have faced in just trying to give ourselves a desperately needed economic tool."
Watch a video of testimony below.
Bring the Pinetops story to your community by hosting a screening of the documentary "Do Not Pass Go." To learn more about the importance of broadband access in rural North Carolina, check out our fact sheet.