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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.

Gigi Sohn Celebrates Self-Reliance Among NATOA Members

In a September 9th speech to the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), Gigi Sohn, Counselor to the Chairman at the FCC, encouraged government officials to build their own networks. She told attendees at the annual conference in San Diego:

Without question, the landscape is changing for local governments, but in a good way. Most significantly, the future is not in cable, but in broadband. Even the cable operators acknowledge this.

Rather than wait for incumbent ISPs to build the network your cities want and need, you can take control of your own broadband futures. Rather than thinking of yourselves as taxers and regulators, which has been the traditional role, you can think of yourselves as facilitators of the kind of services you’ve been begging the incumbents to provide for years.

This is incredibly exciting, and I’m sure somewhat frightening. But the new model for local governments looks to benefit their citizens through externalities, not direct revenues. 

Sohn referred to networks in Sandy, Oregon, where gigabit connectivity is available for approximately $60 per month. She also mentioned the increasing role of partnerships like the one between Westminster, Maryland and Ting. Sohn commented on the changing approach at the FCC:

We are making changes of our own at the FCC to reflect the shifting broadband landscape and make sure that we seize the new opportunities and mitigate the challenges. For example, we pre-empted restrictions on community broadband in response to petitions from community broadband providers in Tennessee and North Carolina.

Read more of Sohn's speech online at the FCC website.

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.

Murfreesboro Wants to Use Existing Fiber for Better Connectivity

In the center of Tennessee sits Murfreesboro, the fastest growing city in the state with 108,000 people and one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. (Just 10 years ago there were only 68,000 residents.) Murfreesboro is also one of the next communities to show an interest in a publicly owned fiber network to improve connectivity.

In an August press release [PDF], Murfreesboro Electric Department (MED) described their existing 19-mile fiber infrastructure, used for communication and control purposes for the electricity distribution system. The fiber was deployed in 2008, says MED General Manager Steve Sax, and the utility is now making plans to use spare fibers for Internet connectivity. MED is in the process of expanding its network by an additional 20 miles.

Sax also stated that MED is working with Middle Tennessee State University to develop a fiber optics pilot project but did not offer details other than it is "very similar to what Google is doing in Nashville."

MED and the Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Cooperative (MTEMC) recently entered into negotiations for MTEMC to acquire the MED. The city of Murfreesboro is in the center of the MTEMC service area and the two have been duplicating efforts in some areas. The city and cooperative signed a memo of understanding in June and the process is moving forward slowly. MTEMC serves over 200,000 cooperative members in a four county service territory; the MED provides electricity to approximately 56,000 customers.

MTEMC does not offer telecommunications services at this time but according to a Daily News Journal article, the cooperative is investing in fiber:

"We have been working with an enterprise ... on a fiber network," said [Brad Gibson, MTEMC chief business officer] about the utility that covers Rutherford, Wilson, Williamson and Cannon counties.

MTEMC has contracted with a private company to install and manage its fiber network but the utility is also researching the possibility of developing its own network, he said.

"We are dedicated to fiber," Gibson said.

The ownership of the public electric utility notwithstanding, leadership at the utility understand the impact today's investment will have on Murfreesboro's future. From the press release:

"Back when MED was founded, electricity was the crucial piece of infrastructure that our grandparents and great-grandparents worked to extend throughout the city," [Sax] says. "Now it's our turn. Broadband Internet is every bit as essential to keeping Murfreesboro competitive now as electricity was then. We welcome the opportunity to work with the city to continue enhancing the quality of life for our citizens."

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.

Jackson Becomes 7th “Gig City” in Tennessee with Upgrades to its Fiber Network

According to a recent report in the Jackson Sun, the city of Jackson, Tennessee is now the seventh “Gig City” in the state of Tennessee. Jackson Energy Authority (JEA), Jackson’s municipal utility received the special recognition at a January business summit.  The Sun focuses on several existing and expected economic benefits that accompany municipal gigabit connectivity.

“These ultra-fast Internet speeds will help to assure innovation as it relates to the next generation of education, medical care, public safety and economic development,” JEA CEO John Ferrell said.

Ferrell also noted that ultra-fast Internet connectivity benefitted businesses in the Jackson community by allowing them to avoid excess inventory while still being able to provide customers with fast access to physical products when they need them.

"A good example is where an automotive supply company produces a part for a car at one plant — such as an interior headliner — and ships that part to the assembly plant to be installed in the car," Ferrell said. "Many times, this part is produced on the same day at one plant that it is installed at another plant."

Community leaders in Jackson hope their new Gig City status can help them to gain the same kind of economic development benefits that have come to places like Chattanooga, Tullahoma, and Morristown over the past several years. EPB told the Sun:

"The economic impact has been huge," J. Ed. Marston, vice president of the Electric Power Board in Chattanooga, said. "New companies have moved to Chattanooga, and a lot of investors, outside investors, are looking at Chattanooga."

Our report, Broadband at the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks, delves into Chattanooga’s story. Where communities invest in municipal networks, economic development almost always follows. Check out our Municipal Networks and Economic Development page for more examples.

The State of Tennessee now has nearly 200 data and call centers with more than 34,000 employees. A 2013 article from Business Climate magazine credits digital and fiber-optic networks as the reason why.

We wrote about the Jackson Energy Authority’s community broadband efforts as far back as 2008 when BBPMag’s FTTH Deployment Snapshot showed that JEA’s network had saved the community over $8 million already.  

As we reported in October of 2014, the JEA is upgrading the network to gigibit service over a three year period, with estimates that service will cost less than $100 per month. The first round of upgrades began earlier this year. JEA is spending around $8-10 million on the current upgrades. The original network build out in 2003 required the JEA to borrow funds but the current upgrades are funded through regular cash flow and require no borrowing. 

Jackson's Mayor Jerry Gist already sees the benefits to his city when a company comes to look at potential building sites in the area:

"Many sites are eliminated because of technology," Gist said. "This puts us in a select group across the nation that has the capability to provide fast (Internet) service to residents and businesses. We're ahead of many, many other cities across the country, and it's a huge asset.”

AT&T, Comcast, Lies Hurt Homeowners

As of this January, the FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, but in some rural areas in the United States, people are still struggling to access DSL speeds of 768 kbps. In a few extreme cases, individuals who rely on the Internet for their jobs and livelihoods have been denied access completely. 

The sad state of affairs for many Americans who subscribe to the major Internet service providers like AT&T and CenturyLink was recently chronicled in an article on Ars Technica that examined AT&T’s stunning combination of poor customer service, insufficient infrastructure, and empty promises to subscribers. It tells the unfortunately common story of the little guy being systematically overlooked by a massive corporation focused solely on short-term profit maximization. 

Mark Lewis of Winterville, Georgia, and Matthew Abernathy of Smyrna, Tennessee, are two examples of AT&T subscribers who, upon moving into new homes, found that not only were they unable to access basic DSL speeds, but that they had no Internet access whatsoever. Alternatively citing a lack of DSL ports and insufficient bandwidth, AT&T failed to provide Lewis Internet access over the course of nearly two years. As for Abernathy, the corporation strung him along for 9 months without providing DSL, forcing him and his wife to rely on a much more expensive Verizon cellular network to go online. 

The struggle that Lewis and Abernathy, as well as others cited in the article, face speaks to the larger problem of individuals relying on large, absentee corporations for their Internet access. Though AT&T has claimed that it intends to expand broadband access to rural and underserved communities, it hasn’t lived up to that promise. Ars Technica estimates that even if AT&T’s merger with DirecTV is approved, which the company says would facilitate the construction of new copper lines in underserved regions, 17 million subscribers would be stuck with slow DSL connections or no Internet at all. 

This isn’t the first time that a company like AT&T has been called out for promising broadband service and failing to deliver it. Ars Technica reported on a similar story in April of this year. And tales of Comcast’s incompetence are also easy to find. 

For residents of rural communities who rely on the Internet for work, the paucity of broadband options can even be a legitimate reason for individuals to sell their houses and move, which — spoiler alert — is what Lewis eventually did:  

With no wireline Internet available, Lewis and his wife have relied on Verizon Wireless service. This has limited Lewis’ ability to work at home. Luckily, they won’t be there much longer — Lewis, his wife, and their kids are putting their house on the market and moving to Massachusetts, where he’s secured a new job at a technology company. 

The new job is "the main reason we're moving," he said. "But in the back of my mind this whole time, I'm saying we can't continue to live here."

And while things turned out OK for Lewis and his family, limited broadband access in rural communities remains an obstacle for many. Individuals and communities should continue to demand accountability from their ISPs, who have for too long reneged on their not-so-ambitious broadband promises.

Call Center Central: Morristown, Tennessee?

The city of Morristown, Tennessee received more positive economic news recently when Sykes Enterprises, a global company that operates in more than 20 countries, announced plans to open a call center in an abandoned big-box store and connect to the city’s municipal network, FiberNet. Sykes estimates that the call center will employ up to 500 workers over the next three years, the large majority of which will come from the Morristown community. 

In Morristown, Sykes will join Oddello Industries, a furniture manufacturer, and the Molecular Pathology Laboratory Network, a personalized health firm – other companies that have cited the fiber network as an important part of their decision to locate facilities in the city of 30,000 people. 

According to the president of the Morristown Chamber of Commerce, Marshall Ramsey, the existence of FiberNet played a role in attracting the 50,000-plus employee firm to Tennessee: 

For Morristown to be able to have a local provider and a secondary provider in AT&T with a gig gives us that redundancy that most companies can’t get elsewhere in the country. 

FiberNet is operated by Morristown Utility Systems, the publicly owned electric and water utility. It began offering gigabit Internet speeds in 2012, though it has served local businesses since 2006. 

This is the second time in two months WBIR – Morristown’s NBC network – has run a story about FiberNet. In May, the station covered the way in which the municipal fiber network has stimulated economic development by increasing competition between service providers. When FiberNet upgraded its network to provide gigabit speeds, the incumbent telephone company in Morristown, AT&T, responded with some upgrades of its own. Morristown is one of a select few cities to have multiple gigabit-offerings, along with neighboring Chattanooga, Tennessee.  

Chris interviewed General Manager and CEO of FiberNet, Jody Wigington, in 2013 to discuss the municipal network’s deployment. You can find the interview here.

Local station WBIR covered the story:

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.