Bill would allow Pinetops to keep Greenlight service

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Local lawmakers have introduced a bipartisan bill that would allow Greenlight Community Broadband to keep its existing customers outside the Wilson County lines.

Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, filed House Bill 396 on Thursday with Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson. The measure would expand the city of Wilson’s municipal broadband service area to the two out-of-county communities where Greenlight signed up customers under presumptive permission from federal regulators.

Vick Family Farms in rural Nash County and the town of Pinetops in Edgecombe County are connected to Greenlight’s high-speed fiber-optic network, but current North Carolina law only allows the city of Wilson to sell Greenlight service inside Wilson County.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last August that the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t have the authority to override state law setting service boundaries for municipal communications agencies. The FCC had given Wilson the go-ahead to extend Greenlight in 2015 under a congressional mandate to promote wider access to broadband internet.

“We are committed to making sure we can find a way for Pinetops and Vick Family Farms to continue to have high-speed internet at this critical time,” Martin said last October.

The Wilson City Council voted in October to provide free Greenlight internet service to Pinetops residents and Vick Family Farms for a period of six months. Waiving charges allows Wilson to comply with the existing state law, which regulates the sale of broadband services, while it lobbies for a change to that law.

“While the short-term fix is not perfect, it was the only alternative we had to disconnecting our neighbors,” Wilson Mayor Bruce Rose said at the time. “Taking broadband service from the people of Pinetops would have been a terrible blow, especially when they are still recovering from Hurricane Matthew.”

Martin, who introduced HB 396, is also a primary sponsor of another bill that would allow government-owned broadband networks to partner with private telecommunications companies to serve rural communities that are currently without reliable high-speed internet service.

House Bill 68, the BRIGHT Futures Act, would provide state grants for municipal broadband agencies to extend infrastructure to underserved areas. The fiber-optic networks would then be leased to cable and internet companies, who would provide the service and bill customers.

That bill, which enjoys the North Carolina League of Municipalities’ backing, was referred to the House Committee on Energy and Public Utilities, where it has yet to receive a hearing. HB 396 has not yet been assigned to a committee.

Rep. Bobbie Richardson, D-Franklin, who represents a portion of Nash County, signed on to co-sponsor the Thursday bill, along with Reps. Verla Insko, D-Orange, and Evelyn Terry, D-Forsyth.

As a local bill affecting 15 or fewer counties, HB 396 would not require Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature to become law. If both chambers of the General Assembly pass it, the bill would be enacted immediately after ratification.

Martin said last month she would introduce a bill to boost Greenlight’s bandwidth and resolve the city of Wilson’s current dilemma. If the local bill doesn’t pass, lawmakers and city officials said the BRIGHT Futures Act, which appears to have broad bipartisan support, could serve as a backup plan.

“We support statewide policy that expands North Carolinians’ access to digital infrastructure and we appreciate Representative Martin’s efforts to move our state forward,” Wilson City Manager Grant Goings said in a February statement. “Our City Council had the courage and vision to build Greenlight and make it available to every property in the city limits. However, other communities across our state are being left behind, and we encourage public policy that helps them pursue connectivity.”

cfriedman@wilsontimes.com | 265-7813