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Rural farms fear a court ruling could halt city-run, high-speed internet service

wilson, nc — There’s a new poster at the Amtrak station here. It proclaims Wilson as “Proud to be North Carolina’s First Gigabit City.” And it’s part of a saga that pits a lone family farm growing sweet potatoes against corporate monopolies with well-heeled lobbyists, much like David and Goliath in the Bible.

A commercial internet service, CenturyLink, provided internet service to Vick Family Farms, in Nash County, until 2015. Charlotte Vick, head of sales for Vick Family Farms, located in rural Nash County just over the Wilson County line, said the service often shut down for hours often during crucial production runs — one year it went out at Thanksgiving, so workers had to pack boxes by hand.

In 2015, Vick Family Farms got caught between the Federal Communications Commission and the North Carolina state legislature.

The battle, reflected in the new railroad station poster in Wilson, was over the spread of city-run internet providers that serve residents, as the New York Times put it in August 2016, “where commercial networks have been unwilling to go.”

When the FCC ruling that municipal utilities could pre-empt state legislation came out, Vick Family Farms signed up for the new internet service and built a new 50,000-square-foot packinghouse that runs on high-speed internet.

Sweet potatoes running down the conveyor belt had their photos taken by 50 cameras. The photos were used to sort the potatoes by size and quality and direct them by technology to appropriate boxes.

Cable industry lobbyists had descended on the North Carolina legislature in 2011, convincing the solons to limit Wilson’s customers outside Wilson County (telecom services and phone companies spent more than $123 million on lobbying in 2016, the Associated Press reported April 18). The FCC ruling that municipal cable came four years later.

According to Vick, Greenlight provides speeds of one gigabit per second, which lets her download huge video files in seconds instead of several hours with Digital Subscriber Line (phone line) or basic cable broadband.

Vick said the fiber optic technology Greenlight uses is superior to cable and telephone networks, which are mainly copper. Greenlight is part of the Wilson electric system which serves four counties, including Vick Family Farms. Greenlight enables the city to read the electric meters remotely without having to send a meter-reader out.

The North Carolina legislature sued the FCC, and in August 2016 the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati upheld restrictive state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee to halt the growth of municipal internet service in those two states.

In response to the court ruling, the Wilson City Council voted last fall to provide free Greenlight service to Vick Family Farms for six months. And local lawmakers have introduced a bipartisan bill that would allow Greenlight to keep its existing customers beyond Wilson County.  

“We’re very worried because there is no way we could run this equipment on the corporate internet service we used to have, and we can’t afford to lose the investment we have made in new facilities and equipment, not to mention the new business we have been able to build up,” said Vick. “We can’t step back in time when everyone else is moving forward.” The court ruling “has cast a shadow,” the Times said, “over dozens of city-run broad-band projects started nationwide in recent years.”

N. C. Gov. Roy Cooper won’t have to sign the local bill if it passes since it affects fewer than 15 counties, but signaled his support in his first “State of the State Report” on March 13 in Raleigh: “Vick Family Farms in Wilson has expanded its sweet potato crops in recent years and is rapidly increasing production to meet global demand, including building a new 50,000-square-foot packaging facility.

“Sixty percent of Vick Family Farms’ customer base is overseas and access to broadband internet has allowed the company to compete, manage shipments and grow their business….High-speed broadband access is key to their success; in fact, a necessity, in a global marketplace.”

In South Carolina, the federal government has designated six counties in a high-poverty “promise zone” that gets special status in grant programs. “Internet access came up frequently as a problem residents want to tackle,” The Post & Courier of Charleston, SC, reported April 8.