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New York Times Covers Fiber and Economic Development

In a recent New York Times article, reporter Kate Murphy shined a light on fiber's increasing role in economic development. Murphy discussed several of the same networks we have followed: Wilson, NC; Chattanooga, TN; Lafayette, LA; and Mount Vernon, WA.

Murphy acknowledged that successful companies are moving from major metropolitan areas to less populated communities out of necessity:

These digital carpetbaggers aren’t just leaving behind jittery Netflix streams and aggravating waits for Twitter feeds to refresh. They are positioning themselves to be more globally competitive and connected.

Murphy notes that countries where governments have invested in critical infrastructure offer more choice, better services, and lower rates. She also points to successful local initiatives, often in less populated communities where large private interests have not invested:

Stepping into the void have been a smattering of municipalities that have public rather than private utility infrastructures. Muninetworks.org has a map that pinpoints many of these communities. They are primarily rural towns that were ignored when the nation’s electrical infrastructure was installed 100 years ago and had to build their own.

Murphy spoke with several business owners that moved from large metropolitan areas to smaller communities because they needed fiber. For a growing number of establishments, fiber networks are the only kind that offer the capacity needed for day-to-day operations. Information security firm, Blank Law and Technology, moved to Mount Vernon to take advantage of its open access fiber network. It helps when customer service representatives live in your neighborhood:

“We investigate computer malfeasance and have to sift through terabytes of data for a single case,” Mr. Blank said. “The fiber connection is the only reason we are in Mount Vernon and the customer service isn’t bad because all you have to do is walk down the street and knock on the door at City Hall.”

Tennessee Legislature Considers Four Pro-Muni Bills

Even though there are several publicly owned networks in Tennessee, existing state statutes create barriers discouraging investment. This year, there is a movement at the state Capitol that may change the environment.

The Jolt Digest and CivSource recently reported that four bills aimed at expanding municipal networks in Tennessee have strong support in Nashville. These Tennessee bills are a refreshing change from bills that are pushed by the cable and telephone companies to limit investment in next-generation networks.

However, these bills are often killed quickly in committee or subcommittee due to the tremendous lobbying power of the big cable and telephone companies.

According to the Jolt Digest, two bills are location specific. From the article:

S.B. 2005 and H.B. 1974 would expand the municipal electric system’s provision of broadband service in Clarksville, Tennessee’s fifth largest city, while S.B. 2140 and H.B. 2242 would allow Trousdale County  to contract with a rural electric cooperative to provide broadband services.  

As the rules stands, municipal electric utilities that offer broadband cannot expand beyond their electric service territory. Clarksville would like to reach out further to offer services to schools, hospitals, and industrial parks. CDE Lightband now provides a gig product that community anchors need. According to Christy Batts at CDE Lightband, the network recently upgraded residential customers without raising rates. The lowest Internet access speed available to new customers is now 50 Mbps for $44.95 per month.

The Jolt Digest describes the remaining bills as intended to redefine the state's current definition of "telecommunications." The change would allow electric cooperatives to use their existing dark fiber to reach customers that are not served by rural telephone cooperatives. The goal is to encourage economic development, education and health care.

As we so often find, these bills have bipartisan support. Though Republicans at the state and federal level tend to support big cable and telephone company positions more often than Democrats, both Republicans and Democrats at the local level overwhelmingly support the decision being made at a local level rather than state or federal preemption.

PDFs of the full text of the bills are available online:

SB2005, HB1974 - Affecting Clarksville

SB1240, HB2242 - Affecting Trousdale County

SB2428, HB2364 - Addressing the definition of "telecommunications"

SB2562, HB2482 - Facilitates the expansion of municipal utilities’ broadband services for economic development, education, and health care.

On the Media Talks Cable Consolidation, Municipal Networks With Crawford and Baller

The possible merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable and the FCC's recent announcement to review state barriers have created a significant buzz in the world of telecommunications. Two recent NPR interviews with Susan Crawford and Jim Baller provide insight into how the merger may affect consumers and why a new light is shining on municipal networks.

Crawford spoke with Brooke Gladstone for a recent interview for On the Media. The two addressed some of the consequences of the potential merger. Crawford also discussed the option of municipal broadband investment is an alternative gaining traction. As our readers know, Crawford authored Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. Crawford joined us in a past episode of the Communiy Broadband Bits podcast.

Jim Baller, President of the Baller Herbst Law Group, also joined On the Media when he spoke with Bob Garfield. Baller and Garfield talked about the cable and telecom lobby's efforts to block municipal authority to build networks. Baller supplied a few of the many examples of successful communities that have blossomed as a result of their investment. We have interviewed Baller three times for our podcast.

 

Each interview is a little over six minutes.

Chattanooga's Fiber Network Praised for Great Customer Service

One of the main differentiator's of community owned networks compared to the big cable and telephone companies is customer service. Being rooted in the community, vested in its success, and employing local residents just means better, more prompt service. A prominent Chattanoogan recently explained

My last shout-out is to EPB Fiber Optics.  This is not a paid commercial, just an opportunity for me to brag on some people who know what they’re doing.  I am the first to go on social media and complain about whatever store or business is guilty of subpar service.  It’s human nature, and it often makes for a good story.  I started using EPB for my cable, internet and phone service about a month ago.  I have encountered three problems during that time, none of them major, but all beyond my level of expertise.  Each time, I called their help line.  Each time, I spoke to local people who did not put me on hold for extended periods, nor did they force me to learn a new language.  They always solved my problem within five minutes.  My blood pressure thanks you, EPB.  This is how it’s done.

We hear these stories frequently with community owned fiber networks. It is hard to do a national study that quantifies the benefits of better customer service, but if we could, we have no doubt the locally owned networks would bury the national cable and telephone companies.

EPB Offering Services Local Businesses Need

EPB in Chattanooga offers a service to business clients that offers a good reminder that local service providers have to be able to offer a variety of business services because different businesses have vastly different wants and needs. In 2012, the publicly owned utility began offering telephone service with cloud characteristics.

The service saves money by limiting the need of small businesses to commit to capital investment and personnel costs while offering the capabilities that larger firms with larger IT staffs have. A TimesFreePress article on the service from 2012 reported:

"We looked at an average business that had nine sets and eight lines, and it comes to about $320 per month, instead of thousands of dollars in up-front costs," [Katie] Espeseth [EPB's head of product development] said.

When businesses install them on their own, the systems and devices require employees to maintain, at a time when many companies are looking to streamline their IT departments.

"It really takes the burden of installing and maintaining your telephone equipment off your own employees and puts it with our company," said Espeseth. "In Chattanooga, if a small business can take the capital they were going to spend on a new phone system and invest it in their business, it makes sense to spread that cost out over time."

EPB did their homework and now provides a service that small businesses need at affordable rates. Understanding the needs of local businesses and offering a range of options is key to the success of local providers.

Chattanooga Cements Status as Best Network in the Nation

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber, a municipal FTTH system owned by the city's electric power board, has dramatically lowered its prices for the gigabit connection and increased all Internet speed tiers.

The slowest connection you can get from EPB Fiber is 100 Mbps symmetrical - and it comes at the same price that most cable tiers start at for much slower connections - $58/month. Want a gig? That is now $70/month. Here is the announcement:



Video streaming by Ustream

The Washington Post covered the story, including several quotes from me.

DePriest tells me that EPB's fiber network is "a great profit center." In the four years the service has been active, the utility company has increased its mid-tier speeds three times — from 15 Mbps to 30 Mbps, from 30 Mbps to 50 Mbps and now from 50 Mbps to 100 Mbps. About 2,500 elite users will enjoy 1-gig speeds by the beginning of October.

Phil Dampier has more coverage at StoptheCap.com, including an analysis of AT&T and Comcast competition.

AT&T charges $65 a month for 24/3Mbps service — its fastest — with a 250GB monthly usage cap, currently not enforced. For $5 more, EPB customers get 1,000/1,000Mbps with no usage limits or overlimit fees.

A recent article in the Chattanoogan noted that Chattanooga had surpassed 50,000 subscribers and was on path to surpass Comcast in subscriber base locally.

Mr. DePriest said Comcast had some 122,000 customers on the EPB grid when EPB launched its rival program. He said Comcast is down to around 75,000 and will likely drop to around 60,000 next year.

Countering Crazy Talk, Volume 3, for Episode #62 of Community Broadband Bits Podcast

Lisa Gonzalez and I are back with another back and forth reaction to some of the crazy claims made by opponents of community owned Internet networks. This is something we started with Episode 50 and continued in Episode 55.

For volume 3 of our Crazy Talk series, we address some recent claims made in opinion pieces, including the obviously-written-by-a-lobbyists op-ed in the Baltimore Sun and signed by Maryland State Senator Pugh.

We talk about claims that Chattanooga has failed (in which we recommend you go back to listen to episode 59 - our conversation with Chattanooga.

We dissect the claims that the US already has robust competition and that having several 4G wireless networks in any way impacts the wireline cable and DSL the vast majority of Americans are stuck with it.

And finally, we talk about Provo and why it is suddenly the most cited network by those opposing community owned networks.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber on Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode #59

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber is the highest profile community network in the U.S. It was the first network in the nation to offer a symmetrical gigabit tier to every last address in the community. On today's Community Broadband Bits podcast, Danna Bailey joins us to discuss the network.

Danna Bailey is EPB's Vice President of Corporate Communications and has long helped behind the scenes to keep our site informed of Chattanooga's progress. We talk about why Chattanooga built the network and the role of the stimulus award for smart grid in expediting the build out long after the project had started.

We also talk about job growth - both large firms and small entreprenurs locating in Chattanooga while citing the community fiber network as a big part of the reason.

The conversation updates the Chattanooga case study we published last year. Chattanooga remains far ahead of its business plan and is doing very well financially. Read all the stories we have published about Chattanooga here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Knoxville Downtown Wondering 'Where Is All the Broadband?'

Knoxville Metro Pulse reporter Paige Hunton published a story last month about a common complaint from downtown residents and businesses - "Downtown Knoxville's Internet Access Kinda Sucks. Can It Be Fixed?" The problem worked its way from local talk to twitter and city leaders have met with residents and business owners to publicly discuss options.

This is a perfect example of what happens to a community that refuses to take responsibility for ensuring local businesses and residents have access to the essential infrastructure they need. Knoxville's approach to improving its Internet access is akin to crossing one's fingers and hoping really hard for the best.

Hunton' describes modern day disaster in the downtown area comprised of an inconsistent patchwork of AT&T DSL, Comcast, and a very limited amount of private provider fiber optics. Some areas have no access, others have no choices. While the city tries to encourage downtown commerce with tax credits for developers and a new entrepreneur center critical high-speed connections are missing.

City officials say the downtown area has a limited amount of aging conduit, discouraging private providers and cost prohibitive to expand. Likewise, old buildings with substandard internal wiring discourage investment from private companies.

Hunton tells the story of Ian Blackburn, a former colleague that now works for a downtown employer impacted by the lack of high-speed broadband downtown. After outgrowing its T1, the company went with 6 Mbps through AT&T DSL. AC Entertainment soon outgrew DSL:

"On one occasion in our DSL days, we had to download a video spot from an artist management site, make a few edits, burn it to disc, and get it to FedEx that day. The browser was estimating over an hour remaining for the download, which would miss the FedEx cutoff point. I remotely logged into a server in my living room, started the download, jumped on my bike, pedaled home, burned the file to a DVD, and was back in the office inside of 20 minutes,” he says. “The problem got solved, but that’s a ridiculous way for a company to have to operate. You can’t do business if you can outrun your Internet on a bicycle.”

AC Entertainment Logo

The building that houses AC Entertainment is now served by Windstream via AT&T fiber optic cables, but many other businesses must contend with pokey DSL as the best option. City and business leaders are considering wireless for the short term:

“It’s not a perfect solution. You always want physical wiring wherever you can get it. But if you can’t get it, wireless Internet is a great option,” Blackburn says. “[Knoxville doesn’t] need fiber-to-the-door like Chattanooga has. A WISP [Wireless Internet Service Provider] will do, and it’s something we can do now while we’re looking to the future for more substantial infrastructure improvements.”

Hunton also talked with Eric Ogle, a researcher at the University of Tennessee's Hoawrd J. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. Ogle studies Internet access and community development. Ogle did not rave about Knoxville's tepid approach to ensuring broadband downtown:

“Additional broadband options in Knoxville at a lower cost would force Comcast and others to lower their costs to become more competitive. We see it all the time, when an incumbent provider enjoys a local monopoly and they suddenly get new competition, their pricing drops,” Ogle says. “So it would be no surprise if Knoxville started talking seriously about deploying a city-wide network, companies like AT&T and Comcast would increase their efforts here.”

For the time being, though, [Knoxville’s Chief Policy Officer Bill] Lyons and [Knoxville Downtown Coordinator Rick] Emmett do not sound keen on serious city involvement in the private broadband market.

“I don’t think we missed any economic activities,” Emmett says, compared to Chattanooga’s network build-out. “That’s the point of this [strategy] is trying to draw in some business.”

That attitude, Ogle says, could be a major mistake in the future.

“I’m a believer that the best way to undermine investment in the future is to fail to provide the needed infrastructure of today,” he says.

Knoxville officials don't think they missed any economic activities? Perhaps they should visit the WBIR archives for examples of companies that deliberately chose to expand in Chattanooga rather than Knoxville specifically because of Internet access. Knoxville may not want to build its own network due to the dirty tricks commonly employed by carriers like Comcast and AT&T, but they had better come up with some sort of a plan.

Ames Tribune Editorial Board Wants a Gig

We continue to see more and more of what we might call "gigabit fever." This is not just a "me too" bubble centered around superfast Internet access. It is a recognition by more and more communities that the refusal of their cable and DSL duopoly to invest in next-generation networks is materially harming their future.

Shortly after Cedar Falls announced it was the first community in Iowa with universal access to a gigabit courtesy of the municipal utility, the Ames Tribune made the case for a gigabit there also.

Ames is home to the excellent Iowa State University (as is Cedar Falls, with U of Northern Iowa). I can praise them as long as I don't say anything about the Hawkeyes, rivals to my beloved Gophers.

Unfortunately, the municipal utility in Ames is less than enthusiastic about following the Cedar Falls approach.

Yet Don Kom, director of the City of Ames Electric Department, tells us: “There has been no discussion at my level of bringing fiber from the city to our customers. We’re not having that discussion.”

Certainly the city has many pressing issues and priorities to address, but super-fast Internet service ought to be high on its list. Besides the fact that it’s the wave of the future and we ought to try to keep pace with that wave, Ames has an impressive history of ambitious and innovative achievements. From burning trash for power to building a large man-made lake, from CyRide to the Main Street revival, Ames is a leader, not a follower, in tackling big things.

Ames provides a reminder that while municipal electric utilities have been at the forefront of investing in FTTH networks historically and gigabit networks more recently, many municipal electric utilities are spending a lot of energy trying to avoid stepping outside their historic business models.

I'm reminded of an interview with Harold DePriest, the visionary CEO of Chattanooga's Electric Power Board, who runs the first network in the US capable of delivering a gig anywhere in the city at a moment's notice (see our case study, Broadband at the Speed of Light).

Story County Iowa Logo

I asked Harold about the role of a municipal electric utility and he said the municipal utilities were formed to ensure the community could take full advantage of the new technology of the day because the private sector was not investing in a way to allow everyone to benefit. It was not about electricity, it was about doing what needed to be done for a community to have the infrastructure it needs to thrive.

That said, either Ames or Story County could move forward with a project absent assistance from the utility. Seattle found its electric utility quite reluctant as well and has settled with a public-private partnership. Other local governments have moved forward with no electric utility - it is a harder path, but by no means impossible.

At the risk of copying too much from the Ames editorial, I do want to highlight how they finished it. Very well written:

And, to take this a step further, while Ames should be taking steps to become a gigabit city, Story County should be looking for ways to extend broadband service to everybody in the county. It’s disturbing, frankly, to imagine that some rural residents are still coping with the sluggish Internet speeds of the 1990s.

It’s pretty clear now that the Internet is not just a fad. It’s equally evident that most of America’s future economy will involve the Internet in some way. Let’s get started now on making Ames a gigabit community on a par with anybody else in the country. It’s not overly dramatic to argue that our economic future depends on it.