Wilson Business Thrives With Muni Fiber Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 171

When Wilson decided to build its municipal fiber network in North Carolina, it found a strong opponent in Tina Mooring, store manager of Computer Central. One of the local business' sources of revenue was connecting people to the Internet and they were fearful that they would lose customers to what became Greenlight, the municipal fiber network that delivered the first 100 Mbps citywide service in the state and later the first citywide gig as well. 

As we noted in a post in August, Computer Central became a strong supporter of Greenlight and now believes that Computer Central would be best served by allowing Wilson's municipal fiber to expand to nearby communities. In this week's Community Broadband Bits, Tina Mooring gives us the background and reasoning for this interesting change of heart. This is a short interview, but we hope to see more of these collaborations and partnerships in other communities, where local businesses can use municipal fiber networks to sell business-to-business services. 

This show is 10 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.

Transcript below.

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Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."


Tina: The other incumbents are not willing to do it, not willing to spend the money only if they're pushed to do it, and you've got someone that's willing to do it. There are so many services my company and other IT providers can offer having that service go out to other areas. 

Lisa: You are listening to Episode 171 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Hello, this is Lisa Gonzalez. We often speak with CIOs, information systems directors, and elected officials in communities served by municipal networks, but once in a while, we get to speak to business leaders who are taking advantage of community broadband. 

This week, Chris speaks with Tina Mooring, store manager of Computer Central, a local business in Wilson, North Carolina. Tina tells Chris how her attitude from skepticism to support for Wilson's Greenlight Network. She offers a first-hand account of how a local publicly owned network reached out to work with a community business to help it meet the needs of its customers. 

The Community Broadband Bits Podcast offers unique commercial-free coverage you won't find anywhere else. We bring you these stories commercial-free, but they are not free to produce. Please take a moment to donate at muninetworks.org or ilsr.org to help us bring you more stories that you won't find anywhere. Now, here's Chris speaking with Tina Mooring from Computer Central in Wilson, North Carolina,.

Chris: Welcome to another addition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with Tina Mooring, the store manager of Computer Central in Wilson, North Carolina. Welcome to the show.

Tina: Thank you.

Chris: Thank you very much for coming on. I've been aware of your firm for a while because we track the municipal networks around the country, and I've always been very interested in how local businesses could take advantage of them and use them. Maybe you could tell us a little bit, tell our audience about what Computer Central does.

Tina: I'll start with what we did and then lead you up to today. Our business was fix and repair broken [devices], contract services, and then Internet. There were three equal parts of our business, so early on the internet was a huge part of what we resold. Currently, we're a managed service provider hosting client software and doing their hosted backups as a DR site for them. We've kind of shifted gears in the last few years due to Greenlight. 

Chris: Can you tell me a little bit about your initial reactions because as you said, you originally were providing internet access yourself. When you learned that the city was planning on building this new Greenlight service, this fiber-optic internet throughout the town, how did you react?

Tina: I was frightened because it was a part of my business. It was one-third of my business, and I just felt like that my government was taking over our private industry. It felt like there was something that we needed to do to save what we had, and so being frightened was our first experience with it, but with the good leadership that they've got with the Greenlight team, we've been able to come together and work on a collaboration of their services and our services and to be able to sell it and be able to install new customers and introduce customers to the Greenlight service. 

Chris: What does that mean in terms of the collaboration? Do they do things special for you that they don't do for any other business or how does that work in practice?

Tina: We have clients back up their computers to us. They have an on-site premise backup, and we are their extra backup in case something happens to their building. Whatever pipe is available at the time that we're doing the backup, whatever is available or left over that's not in use, my clients are able to connect to me faster. The more clients I have connect to me faster, we back up their data, then I can go on to another client. It's really opened us up to having additional clients to be able to back up at all times during the night, so we've been able to grow our customer base.

Chris: Does that mean that if one of your clients has an internet connection, maybe they're paying for 50 megabits or something like that, do they connect to you at faster than that in the middle of the night then? 

Tina: They do. We've actually even got a gigabit connection to us, and so whatever pipe is available to what the customer has is what they're able to back up to Computer Central to. We're able to do more clients simultaneously with that connection that pipe there. 

Chris: I'm curious how it worked? Did they reach out to you or did you reach out to them after they got established and try to repair that bridge, the lack of trust that you started with?

Tina: Honestly, I think everybody didn't know what direction to go on the city's end and our end, what can we do, and they have some very intelligent, smart people that were with Greenlight that say, "Hey, there has got to be somebody that you can be offering with this broadband speed that we're able to provide. There's got to be something that we can do and collaborate together." We've talked with some of the other people that do the same kind of work in our industry in a group setting, and they said, "Why aren't y'all doing backup? You've got that amazing speed there," and so just a light went off and it went from there from hosted backups to hosted services, hosted servers, and hosted applications, so it just spring-boarded from there. 

Chris: Is your business healthy again now? I'm assuming that you don't have very many customers that you're still providing internet access to at this point. 

Tina: The only internet access that we're providing right now is out into the rural areas that can't get any internet. We've got high speed to the water towers in the rural areas and shoot wirelessly to homes and businesses that are in areas that Greenlight nor any of the other incumbents can reach, so very few there. Our biggest flagship is being able to do the hosted servers now and the hosted backups. We were able to replace that income and increase it for having that backbone and having that great service.

Chris: Is your business limited by the limitations that Greenlight has? I think Greenlight can't go beyond the county borders right now under state law.

Tina: Absolutely. I've got clients that are just begging for it, "Please, we want you to host our stuff." Their current internet providers are not willing to go out and give them any kind of faster speed. There's clients that have been there for years and years and years that could barely get a little bit over ISDN speed, so they're begging for it. 

Chris: You have spoken out now, I think, against the restrictions in North Carolina. Can you just tell us what you think about the restrictions that limit Greenlight?

Tina: When Computer Central started doing wireless internet, we were doing it because we knew there were so many businesses that were out in rural areas that couldn't get any high speed, and it was trying to get the momentum that our former Governor Perdue was trying to do, get high speed to everybody. As it is now, if the other incumbents are not willing to do it, not willing to spend the money, only if they're pushed to do it, and you've got someone that's willing to do it, there are so many more services my company and other IT providers can offer having that service go out to other areas. 

Chris: One of the things that I'm wondering about is there's a number of, I think, firms like yours around the country, and as you said, you speak with this group of business owners that are like yours. What advice would you have for a different city where they may not have this relationship? How can they go about creating a relationship like this with a local business? 

Tina: The IT world is a huge arena. There are many clubs and alliances that a lot of the distributors are starting, and they really will work with you to help you with your business model as a managed service provider and disaster recovery backup center if you've got high speed. Both the city leaders and the businesses need to come together and say, "Hey, you've got something that I can offer." Use us as an example. We're making money because we were able to utilize our services and vice versa, so don't just close that door. Have that conversation and include your local people, they’re taxpayers.

Chris: Actually, I have one other question that popped into my head, which is I could probably pay Dropbox or someone else. What's the value of working with a local firm like yours rather than going to some faceless corporation on the internet to get my backup?

Tina: The brick and mortar, having someone to go to and say, "Hey, I need my information, or hey, I need you to restore this information." You can put your information anywhere, and they all have the credentials and the Sarbanes-Oxley and all the other certifications behind it, but they're not going to take that data and put it back on your hardware if you have a failure. You need to have someone that's got your best interest at heart.

Chris: Great. Thank you so much for your time.

Tina: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Lisa: That was Tina Mooring, Store Manager of Computer Central in Wilson, North Carolina, visiting with Chris. You can follow us on Twitter where our handle is @communitynets. Please continue to send us your ideas for the show. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org. Thank you bkfm-b-side for the song, Raise Your Hands, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening.