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Severed connection: Pinetops to lose broadband by Halloween

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The reluctant decision by the Wilson City Council to disconnect Greenlight Community Broadband connections to Pinetops ended the officials’ Thursday night meetings.

The council went into closed session immediately after starting the 5:45 p.m. work session to hear from the city attorney about the legal options associated with an Aug. 10 ruling by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that sided with the state Legislature and barred Wilson from expanding high-speed internet service beyond the county borders. After a 15-minute closed session, the subject was not broached again until the end of the regular meeting with two motions levied by Councilman Donald Evans. The District 5 representative apologized for having to support disconnecting the Edgecombe County town and urged residents to petition state legislators to reverse the law.

“When private enterprise will not deliver service, that is when government comes in,” he said. “The design of government is to do for people what they cannot do for themselves. There are a lot of small towns around North Carolina that private enterprises won’t serve because it does not fit their business plan.”

Officials expressed their distaste for legislators siding with lobbying groups instead of seeking the best for residents. Councilman James Johnson echoed President Barack Obama’s sentiment that connectivity is a path to opportunity.

“But they tell us we can’t do it because Time Warner and other companies have deeper resources to line the reelection pockets of politicians,” Johnson said. “Tom Tillis and his guys did this to us. Hopefully new guys will get elected and give the east tools to thrive like the western part of the state.”

After being bypassed by private internet providers, Pinetops officials petitioned Wilson officials for expansion of Greenlight. Pinetops paid for a feasibility study of the expansion and helped enlist the approximately 200 residents who signed up for the high-speed service. In the meantime, legislators took the fight to the General Assembly, arguing against municipalities filling the void left by private companies.

The Federal Communications Commission exercised their authority to supersede the law under its mandate to improve access to telecommunications, and Greenlight was connected earlier this year to eager Pinetops residents. Judges in the court of appeals ruling in August expressed that the decision was about the FCC’s authority, not about the validity of the law or the expansion of Greenlight.

“We are advised by our attorneys that, due to state law, Wilson can no longer continue to provide broadband communications service outside of the county,” Johnson said in his motions that were approved by all of the council members. “Therefore, I regretfully move that we terminate the agreement with the town of Pinetops and cease providing communication services outside of Wilson County.”

City Manager Grant Goings has said that the disconnection of Pinetops will not have a financial impact on Greenlight operations or the remaining 8,000 customers. The ruling has spurred many questions about why the fiber optic broadband was extended beyond the county lines before serving all of the Wilson County residents.

“When building fiber optic systems, the cost is in a per-mile basis,” Goings said at the August city council meeting. “That cost is relatively similar whether there are two houses or 22 houses on that mile.”

The cost of building the Pinetops infrastructure coincided with necessary electric upgrades to the town. Officials have opted to limit future growth of Greenlight to the current funds instead of borrowing money to expand with priority given to areas served by Wilson Energy. This is due to the lack of lease agreements of electric poles needed to run the Greenlight wiring because the city already owns the poles.

Pinetops Town Administrator Lorenzo Carmon was not available for comment Friday but said earlier that disconnection will be devastating to the town and residents.

“We’re still a part of the global economy, and having high-speed access to that through the internet helps us to stay competitive,” he said.

OTHER ACTION AT THE MEETING

Also Thursday, the city and Wilson 20/20 Community Vision jointly received a $50,000 check from the Merck Foundation. The grant, as well as volunteer work by Merck employees in Wilson, will help complete a 2-mile walking trail around Lake Wilson.

“The overriding goal of Merck Wilson’s Community Outreach Program is to improve the quality of life and the environment in the surrounding area,” said Merck-Wilson Plant Manager Kelly Brna. “We are doing this be leveraging Merck’s financial generosity and the site’s human capital to strengthen our relationship and involvement in the community.”

The trail is expected to be completed by the end of the year, and the city-constructed foot bridge in the park will be completed by mid-2017.

A request for $75,000 by Opportunities Industrialization Center in Wilson drew comments from a number of people. CEO Howard Jones started the discussion noting that OIC has placed 63 people in permanent jobs in the last two months, adding that funding for nonprofits is drying up and support from the city is imperative. Councilman Dr. Michael Bell praised Jones’ more than four decades of work with OIC but requested a strategic plan with tangible results to justify the allocation.

“For us as a city, when we have to make a decision to give funds to a nonprofit, we’re opening a door,” Bell said. “If we start giving money to each nonprofit that walks through the door, there won’t be enough to give away.”

Jones likened a household with an unemployed parent to a tree without roots, stating the chore of getting people work is a community service. He said that without OIC, the courthouse docket would be full as people turn to illicit means to support themselves — a statement Bell refuted later.

“As an African-American, I take offense at the (assumption) that if I’m hungry or poor that I’m going to steal,” he said. “That is really a low blow that I resent. I know what poverty is, and I take offense that because you are poor, you’re going to steal. I just want to say that for the record.”

Mayor Bruce Rose concluded Jones’ request by stating officials will get with Goings and see what can be done to assist the agency.

Other items on the full agenda included setting several voluntary annexation public hearings for Oct. 2, an amendment of a sidewalk cafe ordinance to allow alcoholic beverages in designated areas and the distribution of $177,000 of the council’s discretionary funds to five causes such as Preservation of Wilson and the Whirligig Festival.

bhandgraaf@wilsontimes.com | 265-7821

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