Long before Triangle governments began courting Google Fiber's ultrafast Internet service, Wilson was calling itself "North Carolina's Gigabit city."
This city—population 49,628—east of Raleigh outdid every other North Carolina municipality in 2008 by launching its own municipal broadband, a move that sparked panicked lobbying from regional Internet providers and, eventually, legislative action ensuring it might never happen again.
"We stepped out on a limb," says C. Bruce Rose, mayor of Wilson. "But we're tickled to death with it."
Wilson's Greenlight service, financed through the city government, delivered fiber Internet connections for all homes, businesses and schools, much like the city provides utilities such as water, electricity and sewer.
But Republican and Democratic state lawmakers, many of them receiving campaign donations from powerful telecom providers, all but banned cities and counties from building their own broadband networks with public tax dollars in 2011.
Before the innocuously titled "Level Playing Field" bill became law, the Rowan County municipality of Salisbury followed Wilson's example, constructing its own public broadband system.
Today, Wilson's Greenlight broadband service counts about 7,100 customers in Wilson County. City leaders are also lobbying the Federal Communications Commission to allow Greenlight to expand outside the county to local governments already buying their utilities from Wilson.
The city offers a range of packages, but its premium Gigabit service, which costs about $100 a month, rivals Google Fiber in speed, outstripping local competitors Time Warner and CenturyLink.
Telecom companies said the model offered local broadband an unfair advantage. Other critics said it was an inappropriate use of public dollars. Wilson leaders say it's been a major boon for the city, attracting new businesses and, eventually, new revenues.
"In a modern world, people should fully understand that broadband is infrastructure," says Will Aycock, Greenlight general manager. "Local government has always been in charge of infrastructure."
Wilson took on roughly $35 million in debt to start Greenlight. Aycock says the city is about nine years from paying off its debt, helped by annual revenue surpluses since 2010.
Rose adds that Greenlight could eventually be a money-making venture for Wilson once the debt is paid.
"We spent public dollars on our water system," he said. "We spent public dollars on electrical utilities. I see nothing wrong with spending public dollars on Greenlight. It's something our citizens need."
The public model is becoming an increasingly popular one in the U.S. today. President Obama issued a call during last month's State of the Union address for the FCC to overrule bans on public broadband in 19 states, including North Carolina.
A spokesperson for Time Warner Cable, which lobbied the state for the 2011 legislation, could not be reached.