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New Video on Economic Development and High-Speed Connectivity in Tennessee

Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities has released another quality video focused on restoring local telecommunications authority. This three minute feature describes the importance of high speed connectivity to local economic development.

The video offers specific examples of businesses that relocated to places like Jackson and Chattanooga, comparing business connectivity in places with municipal networks to areas where high-speed connections from incumbents are costly and hard to come by.

Check out the video from the Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities:

TNFOC_EconomicDevelopment2 from TN For Fiber on Vimeo.

Chattanooga Best Place For Startups and Outdoor Play

Chattanooga was hot in August - and we don't mean just weather-wise. EPB Fiber Optics achieved a major milestone, raising subscribership to over 75,000. The Gig City also outpaced the rest of the state in new startup activity and received recognition from Outside Magazine as the 2015 Best Place to Live in America.

The Times Free Press covered the Chattanooga startup scene in a recent article, describing how the city is leading the state in economic investment for new business ideas. When compared to the same period in 2014, Hamilton County's initial business filings rose 12.6 percent in the April - June 2015 period. Statewide that figure for the same timeframe was 9.9 percent.

The Times Free Press article focused on Platt Boyd, an architect and entrepreneur who came to Chattanooga with his 3-D printing business. He moved his business there after competing in the 2014 GigTank. His 3-D printer large enough to create walls may one day change the way buildings are constructed.

"If you are searching for a place to open up a business and looking for a community to grow in, I think the very positive experience of our startups here and the rather unique network of support that Chattanooga offers (are) a really big advantage and draw for a lot of enterpreneurs," said Mike Bradshaw, executive director of The Company Lab, a nonprofit group that works to help startup ventures get off the ground. "Branch Technology, and many other similar companies, have found they can succeed in Chattanooga."

Apparently when measuring quality of life, some people consider factors outside of Internet connectivity: Outside Magazine applauds the Chattanooga sandstone climbing cliffs, its 120-mile mountain bike trail, and the Tennessee and Oconee Rivers where kayakers can find thrilling rapids. But outdoor adventure is not all Outside considered when handing out the award; the presence of the fiber network and its value to young entrepreneurs favored Chattanooga:

“The Gig showed that Chattanooga was committed to developing business,” says Joda Thongnopnua, communications director of Lamp Post, a venture fund that invests in local startups. 

It might be too early to start calling it Silicon Gorge, but people are relocating to Chattanooga because it has something that many other recreation meccas don’t: opportunity.

Watch Outside's video below to learn more about Chattanooga's adventure appeal.

Want a Gig? Ask Consultants the Right Questions

For years, we have been frustrated at the tendency of communities and consultants to view municipal fiber networks as a binary decision. Should we or shouldn't we? Should they or shouldn't they? At its worst, it is framed with the most expensive approach - borrowing for a citywide all-at-once approach.

Consider this framing by a recent story in a Portland, Oregon suburb from the Oregonian:

Hillsboro officials have heard back from the consultant they hired to examine the feasibility of building a municipal fiber network that would bring high-speed, lower-cost Internet service to city residents.

The answer? Don't do it.

Stories like this make my blood boil. It is the absolute wrong question. But to delve into it, I want to abstract away from any specific consultants or approaches. This is not a failing of a single consultant, but something we have seen to various degrees from many.

Jumping ahead, the correct approach is to develop a description of the problems a community faces or wants to solve relating to Internet access. Then, examine a variety of approaches to pick the best option rather than only evaluating the single most expensive option.

Some consultants are very happy to bid a project, answer a narrow question, and then let the community go on its perhaps puzzled way. They have the list of phone poll questions, the spreadsheet full of assumptions, and final feasibility report template all ready for the next community. (We do not offer consulting services.)

Other consultants go out of their way to educate, guide, and otherwise help the community develop and achieve its objectives. These consultants may appear to cost a bit more, but actually can be much more cost effective. Some consultants bid the bare minimum, planning to charge extra later for supposedly supplemental information that is actually essential for continuing the process.

A consultant should be a guide to achieving objectives rather than simply evaluating a single, likely over-simplified question. It all starts with what questions a community asks. After doing some initial research (possibly perusing our Community Connectivity Toolkit), community leaders may be tempted to ask a consultant whether they should build a citywide municipal fiber network.

This is not recommended. Instead, we recommend developing a vision (discussed in our Santa Monica City Net case study).

What is the primary problem that needs to be solved? Hint: It isn't "how do we get a gig??" Be more specific. Common problems include poor business service availability that discourages economic development opportunities, slow connectivity, high prices (for residents or businesses or both), poor reliability, lack of access for historically marginalized populations etc.

Identifying specific problems is important because the preferred solutions for encouraging economic development will be different from those focusing on connecting low-income neighborhoods.

Having established the problems, the vision needs a sense of the opportunities from policy options. Here it is important to remember that the same technology deployed by different entities will create different opportunities. If Chattanooga had decided to beg Verizon for FiOS rather than building their own network, they wouldn't have created thousands of jobs and wouldn't have one of the best networks in the nation today. But both FiOS and Chattanooga's fiber network are technically similar. A FTTH network owned by a massive telco can have dramatically different outcomes than a FTTH network owned by a community. The tradeoff is the responsibility of running the system, likely over decades.

After establishing the problems and opportunities, the consultant should be charged with recommending paths to achieve the vision. "No" is not acceptable answer. An acceptable answer is an analysis that explains how the community can trade off cost, time, risks, and benefits. That is to say a community may decide to take greater risks in anticipation of greater benefits by borrowing significantly to rapidly build a citywide network. Or a community may decide to minimize risk with incremental investments over many years to expand conduit and fiber in the first phases of a long term plan. There are many permutations.

In the year 2015, municipal fiber is not a yes/no question. The models are many and varied - the best question is what does the community need and how motivated it is to take meaningful action.

Had Hillsboro taken this path, they would have a variety of options to discuss to solve the problems with connectivity that were demonstrated by the study. But instead, they have a document that only examined high risk, high cost approaches and found the recommended project to be "marginally viable."

If I were an elected official there, I would be examining what low cost incremental strategies could improve access to the Internet locally.

As a final thought, this is not just a problem with consultants. There are definitely elected officials who are privately happy to hear that a project is not feasible because it gives them cover to take no action. If they were already hesitant to upset power cable and telephone companies, they then have a document that "proves" the costs are too great to take any action.

"Fibervention": Break the Cable Habit In Chattanooga

If you are lucky enough to live in a community where you have a municipal network as a provider, you already know they often go the extra mile to serve customers. However, they don't always market as well as the incumbents, something that is starting to change with naturally viral ads. Enter Chatanooga's "Fibervention" campaign.

The campaign encourages current subscribers to nominate non-suscribers for a gift package:

  • Three months of FREE EPB Fiber Optics service
  • Three months of FREE Smart Network or Smart Network Plus service
  • A Roku online streaming player
  • Six months paid subscription to Netflix
  • $100 iTunes gift card
  • EPB branded gear

They have even created this video, highlighting all the reasons why EPB is so much better than the competition:

As a follow up, EPB released a second video showing the installation at the home of Ms. Martha, the first winner.

With winners like Ms. Martha, this campaign is sure to draw some attention. If you pay attention, you'll see Chase, an actual EPB installer that has become very popular around the community, with some people actually requesting he specifically install their service. At a conference awhile back, many of us assumed in an early ad that he was from a stock photo, but he is real.

Cleveland Investigating Fiber Pilot Project in Tennessee

After a feasibility study on the possibility of a municipal triple-play fiber network left Cleveland Utilities feeling "…not overly optimistic…" community leaders have decided to rethink their strategy. The utility board recently voted 5-0 to look deeper at a network that would offer only Internet and voice services.

Rather than study the feasibility of serving the entire community, CU wants to first try their hand at working on a limited area with a pilot project. The next step is to work with a consultant that will conduct a more focused feasibility study and develop a business plan.

In June, CU CEO Ken Webb told the board:

"I will go ahead and tell you that it's not overly optimistic about us being able to provide 'triple play' [Internet, television and phone] services," Webb said. "The capital requirements are extensive, and the startup cost could present issues."

"There is a possibility of offering services that are not full-blown services," Webb said. "There are a lot of decisions yet to be made, and a lot of review has yet to take place."

After more review of the study, Webb asked the board at the July meeting to consider further consideration for the pilot project, much like the process in Erwin, Tennessee. The Times Free Press covered the meeting where Webb reported that Erwin expected to break even on its pilot project once it took on 180 customers. After recently commencing the project, it quickly signed up 150 subscribers.

As municipalities are considering how to improve their local connectivity, subscriber interest in video services continues to drop. The associated expenses such as head end equipment and the rising cost of content lead a number of them to offer only Internet access and voice. Longmont, Colorado, and Sandy, Oregon, are two recent networks that have decided not to directly offer video, though Sandy is negotiating with a vendor to include a video package in their service.

Cleveland, home to approximately 41,000 people, is considered part of the Chattanooga statistical metro but is not served by the Chattanooga EPB, in part due to state restrictions. Even though the FCC scaled back those state laws in February, the issue is under appeal. Chattanooga border communities such as Cleveland are in limbo as they debate whether or not to wait for the possibility that EPB may one day extend out to them or to take action on their own.

"We owe it to the community to determine whether or not this is a viable project or not," said Webb.

Comcast's Big Gig Rip-Off

For some five years now, many have been talking about gigabit Internet access speeds. After arguing for years that no one needed higher capacity connections, Comcast has finally unveiled its new fiber optic option. And as Tech Dirt notes, it is marketed as being twice as fast but costs 4x as much (even more in the first year!).

We decided to compare the Comcast offering to muni fiber gigabit options.

Comcast's Big Gig Rip-Off

For more information on the great offer from Sandy, see the video we just released about their approach.

Chattanooga Video Explains Potential Gigabit Expansion Process

Following up on our post last week noting the new video from Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities, another video recently posted explains what needs to change in Tennessee law for Chattanooga to expand Internet access beyond the current footprint. EPB Chief Operating Officer David Wade also explains the process the municipal electric distributor will use to connect nearby communities.


Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities - Video on Gig Freedom

In a video calling for "Broadband Equity," the Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities have released a video explaining why communities must have their local Internet choice restored.

We encourage you to Like and Follow their campaign on Facebook.


Chattanooga's EPB, Local Cooperative, and Athens Utility Board Collaborate For Better Internet

Athens, Tennessee, has struck a deal with Chattanooga's EPB and the Volunteer Energy Cooperative (VEC) that could facilitate the city's interest in a municipal fiber network. According to the Times Free Press, the Athens Utility Board (AUB) hammered out the final agreement earlier this month.

AUB is leasing fiber from VEC that carries a gigabit signal from EBP to the AUB system.

According to the article, AUB has explored the prospect of developing their own fiber network as early as November 2013 and now offers Internet access to one business in a local business park. AUB General Manager Eric Newberry told the AUB Board that they plan to approach other local businesses to set up additional commercial accounts. They plan a slow buildout and urge local businesses, many of them clamoring for a reliable connection, to be patient as they take next steps.

Athens is part of the Chattanooga-Cleveland-Dalton area in the southeast corner of the state and home to around 13,500 people. In March, the City Council voted unanimously to pass Resolution 2015-11 supporting local authority for telecommunications. [See the PDF of the Minutes p.1]

Thusfar, the investment has cost $58,258.69 for labor, materials, and equipment. The Board had budgeted $100,000 for the project.

EPB Fiber Keeps Electric Rates in Check

For the first time in four years, EPB is asking its board of directors to approve a rate increase for electric power charges, reports the Chattanoogan. According to EPB, revenue from the Fiber Optic division has kept electric power prices in check for the past four years.

Price increases are always a frustration for residents and businesses, but this is actually another example of how the entire community, even those who may not subscribe to EPB's fiber network, have beneifted via reduced energy rates. We wrote about this last in 2012.

According to the article, several years of deadly storms have caused damage that have increased the average cost of cleanup from $2 million per year to $6 million per year. Additionally:

Officials said this rate increase "is driven by a continuing trend over several years of higher-than-normal costs associated with the greater frequency of devastating storms and by large peak energy demand charges that EPB pays to TVA for power generation.  These demand charges are not covered by regular power sales during months with extreme fluctuations in temperature, particularly when there are a few days of extreme temperatures and the rest of the month is much milder."

The article also notes that the fiber optic division has made $13.4 million over the past fiscal year. Debt from the investment made to offer telephone services is expected to be paid off this June.

[EPB CEO Harold] DePriest  said it was "the best investment we ever made."