The coronavirus pandemic forced an unprecedented shift to remote working, and at the same time, it highlighted a big problem for small cities: slow Internet speed.
NOEL KING, HOST:
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a massive shift to remote work. Now, that’s a problem in some small cities, many of which have bad Internet. Kenny Malone and Wilson Sayre from Planet Money have the story of a small town that tried to fix the problem.
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WILSON SAYRE, BYLINE: Grant Goings is city manager of Wilson, N.C., population 50,000.
KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: And about 15 years ago, he called a meeting with Time Warner Cable to ask, would you build us faster Internet?
GRANT GOINGS: We’d sort of felt like we knew that answer – no interest.
MALONE: The more spread out a community is, the less cost efficient it is to bring fast Internet. This is why lots of small cities and rural areas have slow Internet or none at all.
SAYRE: So the city of Wilson offered to pay for part of the cost – still no interest. That’s when Goings told Time Warner, OK, we’re going to build our own fiber optic network and compete with you.
GOINGS: And that’s when the laughing started, and they…
MALONE: They literally laughed at you in your office.
MALONE: (Laughter) Oh, that’s rough.
GOINGS: Yes and have admitted that since.
SAYRE: Time Warner Cable, now Charter, did not agree to be interviewed for this story.
CHRISTOPHER YOO: People forget that running a telecom company is a full-time job.
MALONE: Christopher Yoo teaches law at the University of Pennsylvania and studies city-run fiber optic networks.
SAYRE: He says cities that try this often end up in over their heads. Internet companies do more than just lay cables. There’s tech support, customer service, marketing.
YOO: We elect politicians for many things, but ability to market telecom products usually isn’t one of them.
MALONE: (Laughter) Yes.
SAYRE: Yoo says lots of cities assume fiber Internet will pay for itself but end up millions of dollars in debt.
MALONE: However, the city of Wilson was on track to be one of the city Internet success stories. And then lawmakers around the state of North Carolina started to say we’re not so sure about this city Internet idea.
SAYRE: Because, well, one, Time Warner started lobbying against it, and they found sympathy in lawmakers who didn’t like governments running businesses because they could lose money at it and make up for that with taxpayer funds.
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MARILYN AVILA: I’m a definite limited government free market individual. We have these…
MALONE: Marilyn Avila, a former North Carolina state representative, didn’t agree to be interviewed for this story. But this is her in the North Carolina General Assembly leading the opposition to the city of Wilson’s Internet project.
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AVILA: And I just felt like that we were allowing a competition that was unfair to the marketplace.
SAYRE: Versions of the Wilson Internet story have happened all over the country. A city decides to get into the Internet business and then lawmakers and telecom industry try to stop it.
MALONE: About 20 states have now effectively banned city-run Internet, leaving lots of small towns stuck. Private companies won’t offer faster Internet because it would lose money. But the city is essentially banned from stepping in to do it themselves.
SAYRE: Including in North Carolina where lawmakers did agree to an exception for the city of Wilson.
MALONE: And Wilson is now beating the odds and often making money off of its Internet. Customers from the downtown area subsidized the spread of fast Internet to the less-profitable areas.
SAYRE: To show us, Will Aycock from the Wilson Internet company drove us past these fields of tobacco and corn and soybeans until we saw this farmhouse out the window.
MALONE: So there’s a bunch tractors.
WILL AYCOCK: It’s the Willifords (ph).
MALONE: You know them?
MALONE: They have fiber?
AYCOCK: They do. They do.
SAYRE: Some of the country’s fastest Internet in a farmhouse. Wilson Sayre.
MALONE: And Kenny Malone, NPR News.
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