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Broadband Law Could Force Rural Residents Off Information Superhighway

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WILSON, N.C. — On the first day of the harvest last week, a line of trucks brimming with sweet potatoes rolled into Vick Family Farms, headed for a new packing plant that runs on ultrafast internet.


The potatoes were tagged with online bar codes to detail the plots where they grew, their types of seed, and dates and times picked. On a conveyor belt, 50 flashing cameras captured and sent images of the spuds to an online program that sorted the Carolina Golds by size and quality and kicked them into boxes.


The Vick family built the plant only after the nearby city of Wilson agreed early last year to bring its municipal broadband service to the 7,000-acre farm. Since the plant opened in October, the farm’s production and sales to Europe have jumped.


But now, after a legal battle between state and federal officials over broadband, the farm and hundreds of other customers in the eastern region of the state may get unplugged.


“We’re very worried because there is no way we could run this equipment on the internet service we used to have, and we can’t imagine the loss we’ll have to the business,” said Charlotte Vick, head of sales for the farm.


Vick Family Farms got caught between the Federal Communications Commission and North Carolina state legislators over the spread of municipal broadband networks, which are city-run internet providers that have increased competition in the broadband market by serving residents where commercial networks have been unwilling to go.

The Vick family uses ultrafast internet to run its sweet potato packing plant. Each box is traced from field to market. Credit Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

This month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld restrictive laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that will halt the growth of such networks. While the decision directly affects only those two states, it has cast a shadow over dozens of city-run broadband projects started nationwide in recent years to help solve the digital divide.


In siding with the states, the court hobbled the boldest effort by federal officials to support municipal broadband networks. While the court agreed that municipal networks were valuable, it disagreed with the F.C.C.’s legal arguments to pre-empt state laws.


Now, cities like Wilson fear they have little protection from laws like those in about 20 states that curb municipal broadband efforts and favor traditional cable and telecom firms. City officials say cable and telecom companies that have lobbied for state restrictions will be encouraged to fight for even more draconian laws, potentially squashing competition that could lead to lower prices and better speeds to access the web.


“This is about more than North Carolina and Tennessee,” said Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities, a nonprofit coalition of cities exploring broadband projects. “We had all looked to the F.C.C. and its attempt to pre-empt those state laws as a way to get affordable and higher-quality broadband to places across the nation that are fighting to serve residents and solve the digital divide.”


In Wilson, officials said cable and telecom companies rejected requests to team up with them and upgrade aging networks, which led the city to start its own broadband network called Greenlight in 2008. The service provides speeds of one gigabit per second, which lets people download big video files in seconds or minutes instead of several hours with DSL or basic cable broadband.


In 2011, companies like Time Warner Cable, represented by the cable lobbying association, asked the North Carolina legislature to adopt a law to limit Wilson’s ability to serve customers outside Wilson County, even though the city serves electricity customers in four additional counties.


Grant Goings, Wilson’s city manager, said the court decision made it unclear “how we can bridge the digital divide and create economies of the future when there are corporate interests standing in the way.”


Empty sweet potato crates at Vick Family Farms. Charlotte Vick, head of sales, said she “can’t imagine the loss we’ll have to the business” without ultrafast internet. Credit Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times
But some lawmakers and free-market-oriented think tanks say public broadband projects should be carefully scrutinized by local regulators because they are costly and, if unsuccessful, can be a financial burden on taxpayers. In addition, the F.C.C. cannot intervene in state laws, they said.


The court decision “affirms the fact that unelected bureaucrats at the F.C.C. completely overstepped their authority by attempting to deny states like North Carolina from setting their own laws to protect hardworking taxpayers and maintain the fairness of the free market,” Thom Tillis, a Republican United States senator who pushed through the 2011 bill when he was North Carolina’s House speaker, said in a statement.


CenturyLink, one of the broadband providers serving Wilson and surrounding areas, says it offers competitive internet speeds and has upgraded its networks. The company says it wants to partner with municipalities but is concerned that city-run networks may have an unfair advantage.


“If local governments choose to compete with private internet service providers, there needs to be a level playing field,” said Rondi Furgason, CenturyLink’s vice president for operations in North Carolina.


The F.C.C. does not plan to appeal the federal court’s decision “after determining that doing so would not be the best use of commission resources,” Mark Wigfield, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement. That means municipalities that want to keep expanding their municipal broadband networks will have to fight to overturn state laws on their own.


The legal fight is being closely watched by other cities in states that have similar broadband restrictions, such as Colorado and Washington. Even big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are in the early stages of exploring municipal broadband networks, which they view as crucial to serving low-income families who cannot afford service from cable and telecom companies.


“It’s bad news for projects looking to expand beyond their borders in hostile, anti-muni broadband states,” said Robert Wack, president of the City Council in Westminster, Md., which began its own gigabit municipal network last year.


Mark and Tina Gomez at home in Pinetops, N.C. They may move to nearby Wilson to keep their broadband service. Credit Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times
For thousands of residents in communities near Wilson, about an hour from Raleigh, the court decision has created whiplash.


In Pinetops, a short drive east of Wilson, many residents cheered the arrival of the Greenlight service last year. The former railroad stop, known for its picturesque pine trees, has long struggled to maintain its population of 1,300. Though many cars pass through the town, there is little reason to stop, since many storefronts are shuttered.


Last year, Pinetops officials pleaded with Wilson, its much larger neighbor that provides water and power to the area, to also bring its broadband service. They saw how having Greenlight had helped Wilson attract companies like Exodus FX, a visual effects company that has worked on movies like “Captain America” and “Black Swan.” In February, Wilson expanded Greenlight to Pinetops by extending fiber lines to 200 homes, and it has plans to serve 400 homes by later this year.


Tina Gomez, a Pinetops resident, quickly saw Greenlight’s benefits. She recently got a telework job with General Electric, which requires reliable high-speed internet service to run a customer service software program. Ms. Gomez, 37, also started online courses in medical billing and coding. Before subscribing to Greenlight, finding telework was a challenge because the existing home internet service was too slow, she said.


Now the political squabble over broadband may hurt her livelihood. Mark Gomez, Ms. Gomez’s husband, said they would move from Pinetops to Wilson when their broadband service was disconnected.


“We can’t stay if the basic services we need aren’t here,” Ms. Gomez said.


At Vick Family Farms, Ms. Vick recalled what life was like before Wilson’s municipal broadband service. Her previous service, supplied by CenturyLink, often stalled or stopped entirely. One week before Thanksgiving a few years ago, the farm was shut down for hours because of an internet failure, so workers had to pack boxes by hand.


“We can’t step back in time when everyone else is moving forward,” she said.


Source : http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/29/technology/broadband-law-could-force-rural-residents-off-information-superhighway.html?ref=technology

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