Wilson Greenlight, Public Housing Authority Solve Access Gap - Community Broadband Bits Episode 236

From our research, we believe the municipal fiber-optic network in Wilson, North Carolina, has the best low-income Internet access program in the nation. Called Greenlight, the fiber network has led to job growth and been a financial success. And now it also offers $10 per month 50 Mbps symmetrical Internet access to those living in housing units owned by the public housing authority.

Greenlight General Manager Will Aycock is back again to tell us about this program and is joined by two additional guests: CEO and President Kelly Vick from the Wilson Housing Authority and Wilson Communications and Marketing Director Rebecca Agner. 

We discuss how the program was created, how it is funded, and how it is impacting the community in addition to public reaction to it. Wilson continues to set a higher bar for what a community can expect when it builds its own network and seeks creative ways to improve opportunity for its businesses and residents.

This show is 23 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this 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 Admiral Bob for the music. The song is Turbo Tornado (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: Blue Wave Theory.


Will Aycock: Our top priorities are supporting the economic health of the community and enhancing the quality of life of our citizens and helping them to build a better life.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 236 of The Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. We've spoken with Will Aycock, manager of Wilson, North Carolina's Green Light Community Broadband Network in the past, to learn about how the community developed its fiber-to-the-home network. This week Will is back again, joined by Rebecca Agner, communications and marketing for the city of Wilson, and Kelly Vick, president and CEO of the Wilson Housing Authority. Recently the network began working with the local housing authority to provide low cost high quality Internet access to residents of the city's public housing. Will, Kelly and Rebecca delve into how the partnership came about and what it means for people who are on a limited budget and living in the connected facilities. The group also touches on how Greenlight is contributing to efforts to revitalize the community, especially the downtown areas. Now here's Christopher, talking with Will Aycock, manager of Greenlight, Rebecca Agner, communications and marketing for the city of Wilson, and Kelly Vick, president and CEO of the Wilson Housing Authority.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of The Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Chris Mitchell, with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today I'm talking to three folks. We're going to try and get a little crazy here with three different voices coming in, talking about what Wilson, North Carolina is doing to bring some great connectivity to low income housing. I'm going to start off by introducing Will Aycock, a veteran of our show, manager at the Greenlight Community Broadband, the municipal utility. Thank you Will for coming back on the show.

Will Aycock: Thank you Chris for having me again.

Christopher Mitchell: We also have Kelly Vick, the president and CEO of the Wilson Housing Authority. Welcome to the show Kelly.

Kelly Vick: Hi Chris, thank you. Thanks for having me.

Christopher Mitchell: We also have Rebecca Agner, the communications and marketing director for the city of Wilson. Welcome to the show.

Rebecca Agner: Thanks Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: Will, I'd love to get a quick update for you before we dive into the low income housing discussion. How is Greenlight doing?

Will Aycock: We're doing very well. We continue to grow. I think we've picked up probably a couple hundred new customers since the last time we spoke. We're closing in on the 9,000 mark. That's very exciting. We're continuing with our expansion of our smart city and smart grid projects. Of course we're continuing to grow by virtue of this partnership that we're here to discuss today. Lots of good things going on here in Wilson.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm glad to hear that. I think we still don't have a solution to your situation with pine tops, but we are still hoping that that will be resolved soon, is that right?

Will Aycock: Yes. We're hopeful and standing by. I'm sure we'll have another podcast in the future hopefully to celebrate that.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, we'll have some maybe champagne popping corks. Let's talk a little bit about the low income housing, I'll bring Kelly in in a second, but Will, can you give me a brief outline of what you're doing?

Will Aycock: Sure. In essence it's a bulk contract with Wilson Housing Authority where really the housing authority is our customer and we are connecting the units in their various properties to our network, to the community's fiber network, in order to provide next generation broadband access into these public housing facilities.

Christopher Mitchell: Great, Kelly let's get your perspective on it. Can you give a sense to our listeners what's exactly happening, maybe from the perspective of a person living in one of your units?

Kelly Vick: Our public school system, starting in the sixth grade they issue our students tablets. They're expecting the students to be able to do their homework on those when they get home. I started wondering, I said, "Well, with our lower income folks, are they able to afford having the broadband," and things like that. Initially Will and I looked at powering up our community centers with wireless and allowing the kids to be able to come there and use that to do their homework, but of course the problem is our staff won't be there at night. We still were lacking some time there. Will and I began a discussion, how can we get this to the home? How can we make it worthwhile for both parties? Will was very great to collaborate with, as well as the city of Wilson. HUD has some pilot program that's called Connect Home, where they're promoting us to conquer the digital divide with their lower income residents. That's where it started from. We were able to have secretary Castro with HUD came and visited in October. We were able to make the official announcement there. I think it really left a good impression on the HUD staff as to what the small city of Wilson has been able to accomplish with bringing this to our residents. We had several community meetings, letting our residents know what the plan was. They were maybe hesitant at first but then all of a sudden they realized the benefits and the low cost involved. The housing authority is providing the router for the home and of course Greenlight is providing a low cost, $10 a month for our residents. Our residents, that seems to be a target that they can afford. I think we're approaching the 150 or so of our residents who have already signed up. We're definitely looking to see some more signups. We've got a lot of interest going on. Yeah, I'm really proud of the partnership that we were able to put together with the city of Wilson and Greenlight.

Christopher Mitchell: You mentioned Wilson's a smaller city, you're about 50,000 people. About how many people are in low income housing?

Kelly Vick: We serve in our public housing, we have right at 800 units. We have about 2,000 people that we serve in our public housing units.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Some people aren't always familiar with the mechanics of local government, the Greenlight Utility's owned by the city of Wilson, the housing authority is a part of the city of Wilson. Rebecca, you are the communications and marketing director for the city of Wilson, so maybe you can give us a little perspective on how excited the city is for this program to be developed.

Rebecca Agner: Yes, we're very excited about having this partnership. It's definitely been a very positive development in the community. Like so many other communities across the United States we are focused on encouraging innovation here in Wilson. There's so many initiatives underway right now to figure out exactly how we can bring more innovation to Wilson. Something that as we've had community discussions around it and we're fortunate enough to be part of a statewide initiative, called InnovateNC, that is helping bring different communities together to figure out how we can work collaboratively to encourage innovation in North Carolina. Something that has emerged as very important to us is the concept of inclusive innovation. As we've figured out what that means for Wilson we've realized that for us that begins very early in a resident's life, so not only do we want to be inclusive in our business climate, but we also want to be inclusive to make sure that everyone has the same opportunity, to have equal opportunity as they grow up. To have this partnership and to think that now children have access to the best technology to help them succeed academically, that's incredibly important to us as we build out this kind of innovation there and throughout the city.

Christopher Mitchell: That's really wonderful. It sounds like certainly the right direction. I have not heard of a program that is this generous around the nation for all the $10 a month program. Will, specifically what is the connectivity that you're delivering for $10 a month for folks that are living in these housing units?

Will Aycock: Obviously fiber, fiber connection and the services of 50 by 50 broadband Internet connection via the community's fiber network.

Christopher Mitchell: Maybe you can explain the economics a little bit. I think some people might be thinking, you must be taking a loss on that then. How do the economics of that work out?

Will Aycock: First and foremost the network was in existence. As Kelly said we had already built into each and every one of the various developments in order to service the community center. We had fiber essentially by every unit, there in these developments. In addition we had previously had service in many of the individual units but over time for various reasons, and I think part of it being economic, we found that a lot of the residents were unable to sustain the service. In effect what we've been able to do is to recoup that existing investment and to drive new additional revenue. It's actually a net contribution back to the operation of our network, because we're getting active customers back onto those existing fiber connections, and of course selling some new ones as well. The important thing is, is that because we're able to work directly with the housing authority and they are our customer, it provides benefits on both sides, both to the customer and to us, in terms of assurance and avoiding some of the things that could stand in the way of digital inclusion, like potentially credit and deposits and things of that nature. This is really a win-win all the way around for all parties involved.

Christopher Mitchell: Kelly, I'd like to ask you to tell us a little bit more about that, how it got started. You mentioned the tablets and whatnot, did you just pick up the phone and called Will and say, "Hey, we need to work something out here." How did that go about?

Kelly Vick: I shared an email with him on the HUD pilot program. That started the discussion of how we could do that here. Actually I have a daughter that's in sixth grade, when she came home the first day and she had a tablet I started thinking, I was like, "We have Internet access, we're able to do that but how can my residents do this?" I know that we have people that don't have a job, who are really down and out. I hate for their kids to suffer. Of course this is not just for the kids, we have plenty of residents that are pursuing their GED, so they're able to connect with our community college and attend classes online. They're also able to put job applications out and go online doing job searches. It's not just for our students, it's definitely for the whole family, as we try to help folks that are a little less fortunate and try to help them on the path to prosperity.

Christopher Mitchell: It's a little hard for me to imagine a housing authority having this kind of partnership with just any service provider. Is Wilson being owned by the city that changed the dynamic for you?

Kelly Vick: I'm sure it has, but just the relationships that we have with different government agencies in Wilson, it's been an impressive partnership. Whether it be the school system, the police department, Greenlight, Wilson energy, we've been able to do a lot of things that really I know a lot of other directors aren't able to do. When I share the stories with our neighbors housing authorities and they're like, "Wow, I wish we could do that," but they don't see a path to it. I feel very fortunate to be here in Wilson with all the relationships that we've created. I think that's the biggest thing that we could have for our residents, is the great intergovernmental relationships.

Will Aycock: Chris I'd like to add to that just a bit. I think one unique difference for community network is our top priorities are supporting the economic health of the community and enhancing the quality of life of our citizens and helping them to build a better life. When locally, because we have these close relationships, we receive these calls and communications like the ones that I got from Kelly, we're absolutely able to figure out how to make the economics work in a beneficial way for the community's network, but we understand that our first priority is actually in helping the citizens to, as Kelly said, move up the ladder. Our motivations are different in terms of what we view as the full bottom line for success.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious, Rebecca, if you can give us a sense of reaction both within Wilson and from perhaps others outside of Wilson that are paying attention. How are people reacting to this program?

Rebecca Agner: After Secretary Castro's visit we had quite a bit of national publicity about it. It was certainly at that event back in October, you could see the pride that the community had around the partnership and the fact that people like Kelly and Will are able to work this out really for the benefit of the entire community. It's been all positive, from locally certainly it was a great front page story in the Wilson Times and has been a pride point for the community and see that it was echoed statewide and nationally with the coverage and the reaction that we've seen.

Christopher Mitchell: Is there any reaction in town? I'm open to anyone talking. One of the things I think people sometimes fear is a bit of jealousy from people that may have a low income job and they are not in public housing and they're looking at someone else getting a low cost question, and thinking, "Why can't I get that?" Is there anything, is there any of that that's turned up?

Kelly Vick: I've not heard the other people come to me as much as I've seen some provinces say, "Why are you giving another freebie," or, "another handout," but then when I explain the economic side, the economic benefit for Greenlight, and also the economic benefit in the future when you have these students that have a better education and have more opportunity, then hopefully you have less people in need of the low-income housing. I wish we could do it for everyone but of course it really only works for the properties that we own. We also operate our section 8 housing towards voucher program. It'd be nice to be able to expand it to that but the economics of it really don't work with having the multiple landlords and not being able to bill. All we can do is really focus on the public housing units and doing everything we can with that. Then hopefully the other folks that already have jobs and things like that might be lower income but hopefully they're going to find a way to benefit as well. I know we have several community locations such as the library, and I'm sure Will can let you know some of the other locations that there's already free Internet access. Things that I know are downtown has it. I see a number of visitors that when they get off the train they're walking downtown and they've got their smartphone out and they're logged into our downtown free wifi. I think Greenlight's really providing a lot of addition locations for folks that might not be in public housing to experience the Greenlight connection.

Will Aycock: I will say that we have received as Greenlight no concerns from anyone locally. I think people understand the concept. I appreciate the good work Kelly does in communicating about what's going on and the value of it, because I certainly think that helps with the public understanding the value of the service. We have not seen any of that.

Christopher Mitchell: It may help that you're already delivering such a high quality product for a reasonable cost, something that I don't have in my area, where we're served by a major cable company as our only real source of broadband. I'm sure that helps. One of the things I wanted to ask about, and I'm not sure Kelly or Rebecca how long you've been in Wilson, Will I know you've been there for quite some time. It seems like every year there's more good news coming out of Wilson and I know that eastern north Carolina is pretty hard hit in terms of jobs and that sort of thing. I would love to have you reflect a little bit on how it seems to me like Greenlight is really contributing in lots of ways to making a more vibrant community. In an area where you really don't have any other major advantages in the current economy.

Rebecca Agner: If I can kick off that response, I am new to Wilson so I've only been around this community about a year and a half. The reason that I chose to join the leadership team here at the city and to relocate my family here, it's because I definitely saw the promise that was coming. There's definitely momentum shifting in Wilson's direction. We have some great announcement in our downtown, in our urban core, that will continue to grow. I think it's a really exciting time to be here in Wilson. I mentioned earlier the InnovateNC efforts and what we're doing to drive innovation here. Greenlight is the foundation of all of that, and I think more to come on that as we continue to get our strategic plan together around those efforts. The ability that small business and entrepreneurs and innovators can have to succeed and to thrive here with the infrastructure that's in place, I really see it as the possibilities are endless. Our biggest challenge right now is getting the word out about it as we continue to develop our downtown area so we're more attractive to entrepreneurs and people who may be starting up a business. We have everything in place with the exception of maybe some available space that we're working on. My biggest challenge as a marketing director I think is going to be to let people know that Wilson's a great place for them to come, it's a great place for them to come and test any kind of technology applications that may or may not have been invented yet, because we have the broadband and we have a business climate that everyone is pretty much on the same page as this is what our future will be. I don't think any of this would be possible without Greenlight.

Christopher Mitchell: Will or Kelly, do you have anything you'd like to add onto that? I'll just say that it strikes me, you mentioned you may have some space constraints, I was there maybe seven or eight years ago and there was old tobacco warehouses and things. It strikes me that pretty that will be museum pieces as Wilson has a whole new phase of life. You may not have asked for it but you certainly are making I think everything you can out of the situation you've been in.

Rebecca Agner: Chris I invite you back if you haven't been here for a while. The Hi-Dollar Warehouse, which may be the tobacco warehouse that you're referencing, we actually have partnered with a private developer and that property is being redeveloped into both commercial and residential space. Once that's ready we'll have 90 units that are available. Of course they'll have Greenlight access. I think that will be coming with the leased units, but there'll be so much more opportunity for people to both live and work in downtown Wilson.

Kelly Vick: I'm a lifelong resident of Wilson so I've really seen a big change. I started the housing authority in 2012 but before that I was in private real estate and construction and property management for 20 years, so I've seen a lot of growth in Wilson, a lot of changes. For a while it seemed like everybody was pushing on the outskirts of Wilson, looking for larger lots, things like that, larger homes. But actually the last few years we've seen a resurgence of folks wanting to be downtown. Luckily we have the Hi-Dollar Warehouse and we had another project that brought some other market rate apartments downtown, and they leased very quickly. We're starting to get more of a residential base downtown, which is definitely going to help bring more restaurant. We have a brewery that's just opened up in downtown Wilson right by our Whirligig Park. We're looking to have more concerts in the amphitheater. There's really been a big focus on downtown. There was a lot of planning involved with that. It's great to see it come to fruition.

Will Aycock: Chris I would add that Greenlight is just the latest chapter is what is a really long history of local self-reliance here in this community. Investing in public infrastructure, taking the future in our own hands as I think this partnership between Kelly and the housing authority and us and Greenlight, the city, it represents that sort of pulling ourselves by our bootstraps and figuring our things on our own. That's the history of this community, and the ethics of this community, and has been since well before my time. I think there's more to come. Greenlight is the latest chapter and the current chapter but not the last chapter.

Christopher Mitchell: No, that's a really good point. I think you and I in a past podcast talked about the reservoir and the history of infrastructure decisions. Now we still back to when Greenlight was established, not Greenlight but the Wilson city utilities. I didn't know that there were utilities back then, that's prior to the light bulb even working I think. It was definitely one of the most early municipal utilities I'm aware of forming. There's definitely a wonderful history there. Rebecca I look forward to taking you up on the offer to come through. Thank you so much for telling us more about this program. I hope it starts an arms race of sorts between the other cities that would like to figure out ways of one-upping you, 50 Megabits per second symmetrical connections, $10 a month for low income housing, making sure kids have no problems doing their homeworks at home. This is unprecedented to my knowledge at that price point. Congratulations on setting such a high bar. Thank you all for telling us about it.

Will Aycock: Thank you for having me.

Kelly Vick: Yeah, thank you Chris.

Rebecca Agner: Thanks Chris. Come see us.

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher talking with Will Aycock, manager of Wilson, North Carolina's Greenlight Community Broadband Network, Rebecca Agner, communications and marketing for the city of Wilson, and Kelly Vick, president and CEO of the Wilson Housing Authority. Check out our other stories on Wilson and Greenlight at muninetworks.org. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with you ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @CommunityNets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter, the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR family on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever else you get your podcast. Never miss out on our original research, you can subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. Thanks to Admiral Bob for the song Turbo Tornado, licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to episode 236 of The Community Broadband Bits Podcast.