Editor’s note: LimeLight, the newest addition to WRAL TechWire’s growing lineup, offers ways for companies and individuals to bring more attention to their efforts. Today we feature a post about broadband from Suzanne Coker Craig, who is a former Pinetops town commissioner.

PINETOPS – Few people would believe that an eastern North Carolina town of less than 1,300 people could find itself as ground zero in the policy fight for better broadband. That has exactly been the fate of my hometown, Pinetops, in Edgecombe County.

Our residents didn’t choose to be there. But, we were willing to challenge the large private-sector internet service providers who were not interested in meeting the needs of small-town North Carolina. And it wasn’t our intention to fight for modern broadband service, but when we found access to fantastic service through a long-time municipal partner, we were not allowed to do so quietly.

Suzanne Coker Craig

The excellent broadband service we have now has nothing to do with the big companies. We owe our great service to a progressive municipal partner with the foresight to develop their own gigabit speed internet system when the big providers refused to meet their needs.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has hit our state, reliable broadband service is more important than ever for homebound students and workers,. Most small towns and rural areas are not so fortunate. It is absolutely essential for state legislators to ensure that all of the towns and all of the areas that they represent gain access to this must-have infrastructure, and for them to recognize that the large providers are not going to fill the void.

Certainly, they never did in Pinetops.

So how did we get here?

In 2010, fed up with terrible service, the Pinetops Town Council began talking to the City of Wilson after it had launched its lightning-fast Greenlight internet service. The town had been getting electricity from Wilson for decades, so why not get better internet service from them too?

The General Assembly’s legislation in 2011, at the behest of Time-Warner Cable (now Spectrum) and the other big telecoms, blocked further municipal systems and their expansion, and derailed Greenlight service to Pinetops. Then, when the Federal Communications Commission stepped in to block state laws like North Carolina’s, Pinetops decided to move forward.

Once the broadband service was available, the difference was amazing. At home, I could download large files quickly, even as my business two blocks away, hooked up to CenturyLink, struggled with advertised download speeds of 10 mbps that were often no better than 3 or 4 mbps.

I was signed up to get Greenlight at my business when the court ruling came down that reversed the FCC action.

Taking our fight to the state legislature, we couldn’t imagine legislators would want to take away this vital service.  Our argument was simple: We are a small town in eastern North Carolina with a decreasing population base and a struggling local economy; the major internet companies felt no need to invest in our area, so we have been stuck with very poor internet service which significantly challenges our residents and businesses.

What was fascinating about this process is how Pinetops – now in the middle of a well-publicized fight in Raleigh – suddenly became attractive to other providers. CenturyLink improved their service. SuddenLink expressed an interest in bringing service to town if we would give up Greenlight. Isn’t it interesting what competition will do?

Once the legislative dust settled, SuddenLink was forced upon us and Greenlight was forced out. Thankfully, though, Greenlight was able to sell its Pinetops business to a company called Locality Networks. The transition was seamless, and the company – not restricted by that 2011 law – is now expanding to customers outside the town.

Pinetops, though, is an anomaly. Across North Carolina, there are dozens of other small towns that are still waiting, still left with a single provider not investing or upgrading their technology, still seeing their economic future slip away, still waiting for state policymakers to begin listening to them and not the big telecoms.