Report: Wilson, N.C., Shows What’s Possible When a Broadband Network Puts Community First

Date: 7 Dec 2020 | posted in: MuniNetworks | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In a new case study, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance explores the wide-ranging community benefits of Greenlight, the city-owned Fiber-to-the-Home network in Wilson, North Carolina. The case study details how it has been able to quickly adapt and expand service during the pandemic. 

Built in 2008 with an eye toward the future and operated with local priorities in mind, Greenlight has a long track record of putting people first. A few examples are: 

  • Access for All
    • In 2016, Greenlight began a partnership with the Wilson Housing Authority (WHA) to connect hundreds of public housing residents to $10/month low-cost fast Internet access. 
    • The network targets barriers to service adoption that go beyond cost, including a flexpay system which allows users to prepay for Internet access instead of requiring large deposits or a credit check. It also allows users to load funds into their account for individual days of network access. 
  • Economic Development
    • Greenlight has been named as a key factor in Wilson’s economic revitalization. 
    • Wilson’s fiber infrastructure has helped local businesses succeed and is a factor in the relocation of new companies to the area. In 2019, Wilson was ranked the 10th best small city in the country to start a business.
    • In 2016, Greenlight began co-sponsoring the GigEast Exchange Conference. The GigEast Exchange serves as a technology hub, incubator, and networking space for everyone in the community.
  • Education
    • All schools in the county were connected to the network by 2012. 
    • In 2019, Greenlight partnered with Wilson Community College to develop a curriculum to train the next generation of network technicians and managers.

Throughout the pandemic, Greenlight has gone even further to support its community. When schools quickly converted to remote learning in the spring of 2020, the network installed more than 3,000 feet of fiber to make sure a local history teacher, Michelle Galloway, could teach from home. The network has also made its Lifeline program permanent, offering basic video conference-capable connections for $10/month for residents to activate as needed.

Notably, Greenlight is not allowed to expand these programs, or any of its services, beyond the county line. This is due to North Carolina’s restrictions around community-owned broadband networks, which are among the strongest in the country. Ironically, the law was originally justified by claims that Greenlight was doomed to fail – it actually ended up being the first citywide gigabit network in the state. Since the state legislature enacted these restrictions in 2011, no other communities in the state have been allowed to build a city-owned network. Despite Wilson’s persistent efforts to undo the law by appealing to the FCC and the court system, rural communities throughout North Carolina remain shut out of the many benefits the community has enjoyed thanks to its fiber network. 

Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks initiative, said of the network:

“Greenlight has had to overcome barriers created by the big monopolies that set the agenda in Raleigh, and it has done so with a creativity and passion that should be emulated, not prohibited. Restricting other North Carolina communities from enjoying the benefits Greenlight has brought to Wilson makes no sense – especially during a pandemic.”  

Wilson’s Greenlight network shows how a community can thrive from local investment and a focus on building community benefits rather than charging the maximum that can be extracted from families. 

Read Wilson Hits a Fiber-to-the-Home Run with Greenlight Municipal Broadband Network here. 

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Follow Ry Marcattilio-McCracken:
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

Ry is a Senior Researcher with ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative. He is interested in the democratizing power of technology, systems engineering, and the history of science, technology, and medicine.

Follow Christopher Mitchell:
Christopher Mitchell

Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He runs MuniNetworks.org as part of ILSR's effort to ensure broadband networks are directly accountable to the communities that depend upon them.