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Broadband Law Could Force Rural Residents Off Information Superhighway

A federal court ruling may halt the spread of municipal high-speed internet providers, which often serve households and businesses where commercial cable and telecom firms have been unwilling to go.

But some lawmakers and free-market-oriented think tanks say public broadband projects should be carefully scrutinized by local regulators because they are costly and, if unsuccessful, can be a financial burden on taxpayers. In addition, the F.C.C. cannot intervene in state laws, they said.

The court decision “affirms the fact that unelected bureaucrats at the F.C.C. completely overstepped their authority by attempting to deny states like North Carolina from setting their own laws to protect hardworking taxpayers and maintain the fairness of the free market,” Thom Tillis, a Republican United States senator who pushed through the 2011 bill when he was North Carolina’s House speaker, said in a statement.

CenturyLink, one of the broadband providers serving Wilson and surrounding areas, says it offers competitive internet speeds and has upgraded its networks. The company says it wants to partner with municipalities but is concerned that city-run networks may have an unfair advantage.

“If local governments choose to compete with private internet service providers, there needs to be a level playing field,” said Rondi Furgason, CenturyLink’s vice president for operations in North Carolina.

The F.C.C. does not plan to appeal the federal court’s decision “after determining that doing so would not be the best use of commission resources,” Mark Wigfield, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement. That means municipalities that want to keep expanding their municipal broadband networks will have to fight to overturn state laws on their own.

The legal fight is being closely watched by other cities in states that have similar broadband restrictions, such as Colorado and Washington. Even big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are in the early stages of exploring municipal broadband networks, which they view as crucial to serving low-income families who cannot afford service from cable and telecom companies.

“It’s bad news for projects looking to expand beyond their borders in hostile, anti-muni broadband states,” said Robert Wack, president of the City Council in Westminster, Md., which began its own gigabit municipal network last year.

For thousands of residents in communities near Wilson, about an hour from Raleigh, the court decision has created whiplash.

In Pinetops, a short drive east of Wilson, many residents cheered the arrival of the Greenlight service last year. The former railroad stop, known for its picturesque pine trees, has long struggled to maintain its population of 1,300. Though many cars pass through the town, there is little reason to stop, since many storefronts are shuttered.

Last year, Pinetops officials pleaded with Wilson, its much larger neighbor that provides water and power to the area, to also bring its broadband service. They saw how having Greenlight had helped Wilson attract companies like Exodus FX, a visual effects company that has worked on movies like “Captain America” and “Black Swan.” In February, Wilson expanded Greenlight to Pinetops by extending fiber lines to 200 homes, and it has plans to serve 400 homes by later this year.

Tina Gomez, a Pinetops resident, quickly saw Greenlight’s benefits. She recently got a telework job with General Electric, which requires reliable high-speed internet service to run a customer service software program. Ms. Gomez, 37, also started online courses in medical billing and coding. Before subscribing to Greenlight, finding telework was a challenge because the existing home internet service was too slow, she said.

Now the political squabble over broadband may hurt her livelihood. Mark Gomez, Ms. Gomez’s husband, said they would move from Pinetops to Wilson when their broadband service was disconnected.

“We can’t stay if the basic services we need aren’t here,” Ms. Gomez said.

At Vick Family Farms, Ms. Vick recalled what life was like before Wilson’s municipal broadband service. Her previous service, supplied by CenturyLink, often stalled or stopped entirely. One week before Thanksgiving a few years ago, the farm was shut down for hours because of an internet failure, so workers had to pack boxes by hand.

“We can’t step back in time when everyone else is moving forward,” she said.

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