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"Little Gig City" And Friends Go to Nashville to Fight for Local Authority

As the people of Tennessee wait for the court to determine their broadband future, state and local leaders in Nashville are hearing municipal network advocates and foes.

The bipartisan Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, anticipating state legislation aimed at removing state anti-muni laws next session, recently heard from advocates of municipal networks. Those in favor of keeping state barriers in place also took a seat at the table. The Commission includes state legislators and local community leaders. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is now considering Tennessee's petition to vacate FCC's February decision to overturn state laws against local authority.

The Same Old Argument

The Tennessee Cable Association (TCA), representing large incumbent cable providers, repeated the same misinformation we have heard before - that municipal networks are "failures." Their lawyer pointed to debt as proof-positive that "these communities that have gone into this business have done very poorly," reported the Johnson City Press.

Chattanooga's EPB President Harold DePriest summed up the weakness of that statement when he said, “It’s the same reason you have a 30-year mortgage on your house, instead of a 5-year mortgage.” It's about long-term vision and planning.

A number of representatives from Tennessee communities served by municipal networks attended the meeting and presented the facts. Chattanooga's world-famous fiber network is often in the limelight, but smaller Tennessee towns with networks like Erwin and Jackson have benefitted from their investments and other communities, such as Cleveland, have plans to follow suit.

Erwin Making Strides

Erwin Utilities sent fiber optic engineer John Williams who called out TCA for using the word "failure" and describing it as a mischaracterization. Williams noted that Erwin Utilities, who initiated a pilot project last March, is already serving 200 of 300 potential customers after only 7 months of operation. Customers in Erwin have access to symmetrical 25 Mbps, 100 Mbps, and 1 Gbps connectivity along with telephone service. Internet access from Erwin Utilities is available for $49.95, $69.95, and $199.95 respectively; you can call Erwin "Little Gig City."

The fiber system was originally deployed to manage the electric utility smart meter system, so much of the infrastructure is already in place.


Erwin has not incurred any debt to deploy its fiber pilot project, says Williams. The utility has taken an incremental approach, leasing out excess capacity from the electric system and using proceeds to build out one section at a time. For phase one, scheduled to start any day, Erwin Utilities only needs 15 percent of current electric customers with smart meters to sign up for fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) services for the network to pay for itself. They plan on offering FTTH across the entire service area within five years.

A small town like Erwin, population 6,000, does not have the density to attract large providers for fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. Their municipal utility has a plan to serve people which will not violate Tennessee's state restrictions, but Williams spoke before the Commission in support of removing those limitations:

I would argue that every municipal broadband deployment has been successful...The biggest thing we like to point out about municipal projects, specifically ours, is the availability to rural customers who may be underserved by existing services. In Unicoi County, only 75 percent is covered by a cable company, so 25 percent of our electric service area doesn’t have access to broadband.

A Cooperative Point of View

In addition to Erwin Utilities, Cleveland Utilities CEO Ken Webb and Ben Lovins, Senior Vice President from Jackson Energy Authority's Telecommunications Division (JEA) supported the notion of removing state prohibitions blocking Chattanooga, Erwin, and others from expanding to other areas. Also providing perspective was Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association's Mike Knotts, reported the Chattanoogan.

Knotts drew a parallel between the expansion of broadband today and the roll out of electrification in the 1930s in which rural cooperatives played in instrumental role. He suggested nonprofit entities with the ability to spread costs out over long periods of time, rather than private companies, would be the best option to get the job done once again:

That was the very simple magic that took, in 10 years, less than 10 percent of American farms being electrified to 100 percent — not much more in the secret sauce other than that.

Pilots and Plans: It's All About The Local

In addition to serving 18,000 customers, the JEA telecom division brings in annual revenue of approximately $30 million, according to Lovins. Small-businesses, students, and ratepayers are only a few of the many who benefit. Lovins went on to provide numerous examples of how the investment has improved the quality of life in Jackson.

The network has kept the town competitive when, in the late 1990s, the incumbent provider told community leaders there was no need to upgrade because Jackson didn't need high-speed connectivity. Lovins told the Commission, "All of this was achieved through local choice, no taxes and no government funding."

Cleveland's Webb advocated for striking down the law because it prevents the Chattanooga EPB from serving neighbors who want and need fast, affordable, reliable service.

Cleveland, also working on a pilot project, points out that access to connectivity is no longer a luxury. The community's pilot project aims to fill in gaps in service created by poor coverage from incumbents. According to Webb, he recently spoke with a local attorney who finally obtained adequate Internet access at office after 24 years of requests to the local incumbent. Cleveland leaders don't want to wait another 24 years to fill the gaps in service that plague local businesses.

Webb told the Commission:

Cleveland wants to offer its citizens the absolute best that we possibly can. … We don’t want to fall behind in Cleveland.

Legislative state barriers accomplish nothing except prevent better connectivity in urban and rural areas. Local communities feel the impact of local decisions. As the Court considers the Tennessee petition, they will understand local communities better if they take to heart the words of JEA's Ben Lovins:

Give local leaders the choice to work solutions that best fit their communities and that includes allowing our municipal systems to work together to help our neighbors.

While 6th Circuit Reviews Appeal, Organized Attack Begins In House

As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals considers the FCC's decision to roll back Tennessee and North Carolina anti-muni laws, elected officials opposed to local authority are mounting an assault to head off possible enabling legislation. Their first target is the House of Representatives.

Poison Pens

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange all sent letters to the Chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Fred Upton (R-MI). Their letters express derision at the thought of allowing local communities the ability to make decisions for themselves when it comes to ensuring local businesses and residents have the Internet access they need.

Communities with publicly owned networks such as Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, have prospered compared to those relying only on the large incumbent cable and telephone companies like Comcast and AT&T. Data suggest access to publicly owned networks contribute to local prosperity. Nevertheless, these elected officials have chosen to support big ISPs rather than their own constituents.

Elected Officials Protecting Campaign Interests

When the FCC released its Opinion and Order scaling back state restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina, legislators backed by ISP powerhouses took up arms. They introduced bills, wrote editorials, and delivered speeches that put profits of AT&T and Comcast before the rights of Tennesseans and North Carolinians to have fast, affordable, reliable Internet access.

Tennessee Governor Haslam and North Carolina AG Cooper each filed an appeal, to reverse the FCC's decision and keep the laws limiting competition in place. Those appeals have been consolidated and are being considered together in the Sixth Circuit.

According to Stop the Cap!, advocates for better local connectivity have observed the way telecomunications legislation is passed in Tennessee:

Haslam’s critics contend the governor has delegated his own power to protect the interests of large telecommunications corporations operating in his state — companies the critics claimed wrote and lobbied for a state law that established anticompetitive broadband corporate protectionism in Tennessee. Among Haslam’s top campaign contributors are AT&T and Comcast — Tennessee’s two largest telecommunications companies.

Haslam is not the only state leader to speak out who has a vested interest in keeping restrictions in place.

As Stop the Cap! notes, all four of these prominent politicians received considerable campaign contributions from powerhouse ISPs with an interest in limiting competition.

For a quick rundown, we collected some links:

Early Attack

The latest assault is an effort to head off federal action to guarantee local Internet choice. In addition to the FCC Order in February, Senator Cory Booker introduced such a bill last January with the support of Senators McCaskill and Markey. The issue has gained more attention over the past year as word spread of the benefits experienced in Chattanooga, Wilson, and other cities with publicly owned networks.

Big incumbent providers write checks to state lawmakers with one hand as they write legislation with the other. This is just one of the many problems with massive monopolies cornering the market in essential services: they have all the access they need to stifle competition. As long as this is the preferred campaign finance method, voters are the only ones who can punish elected officials who put big corporate interests ahead of local needs.

Resource Central: TN and NC Appeal FCC Decision to Restore Local Authority

Nine months ago, the FCC voted to peel back laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that eliminate local authority and discourage expansion of broadband investment. As was expected, both states filed appeals and those appeals were consolidated for review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit covering Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

It has been a long and arduous journey for the parties, their attorneys, and local authority advocates. In order to help readers stay informed of the parties and their arguments, we gathered together a collection of resources related to the original Order and the Appeal. 

Downloads of briefs are available as attachments here.

Chattanooga Crushes It - Marketing, Technology, and Nearby Communities - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 175

Chattanooga returns to the Community Broadband Bits podcast this week in episode 175 to talk about their 10 Gbps upgrade, the fibervention campaign, TN4Fiber, and having surpassed 75,000 subscribers.

For so much content, we have three guests joining us from Chattanooga's Electric Power Board (the EPB in EPB Fiber): Danna Bailey is the VP of Corporate Communications, Beth Johnson is the Marketing Manager, and Colman Keane is the Director of Fiber Technology.

Danna gives some background on what they are doing in Chattanooga and how excited people in nearby communities are for Chattanooga to bring local Internet choice to SE Tennessee if the state would stop protecting the AT&T, Comcast, and Charter monopolies from competition.

Beth tells us about the Fibervention campaign and how excited people are once they experience the full fiber optic experience powered by a locally-based provider.

And finally, Colman talks tech with us regarding the 10 Gbps platform, branded NextNet. We tried to get a bit more technical for the folks that are very curious about these cutting edge technologies on a passive optical network.

Read the transcript from episode 175 here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can downl this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

EPB Turns Up The Speed To 10 Gigs

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber Optics now offers 10 gigabit Internet service to all households and businesses in its service area. The ultra-fast service is available for $299 per month with free installation, no contracts, and no cancellation fees, announced community leaders at a press conference on October 15th.

In addition to 10 gig service, EPB is also offering "Professional" products available in 3 gig, 5 gig, and 10 gig for large businesses. Smaller businesses have the option of choosing 5 gig or 10 gig Internet products. According to the press release, prices on all the new products vary.

Since the network was launched in 2010, Chattanooga has transformed from one of the "dirtiest cities in America" to a haven for the entrepreneurial culture. Chattanooga experienced explosive economic development leading to thousands of new jobs, substantial public savings due to the network's smart grid capabilities, and new educational opportunities for students and workforce development.

From the press release:

Chattanooga’s fiber optic network has produced tangible results. A study recently released by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Finance professor Bento Lobo shows “the Gig Network” helped the Chattanooga area generate at least 2,800 new jobs and at least $865.3 million in economic and social benefits. The study also found the EPB smart grid, which is the cornerstone application of the utility’s community-wide fiber optic network, has allowed customers to avoid an estimated 124.7 million minutes of electric service interruptions by automatically re-routing power (often in less than a second) to prevent an outage or dramatically reduce outage durations.[read the study here

The city created a standard other communities strive to achieve; we often see communities aiming for the $70 gigabit price point offered by EPB. As a leader for other municipalities, it is only fitting that Chattanooga has taken this next step forward.

Also from the press release:

“Chattanooga’s 10 Gig fiber optic network is a world-class platform for innovation,” [Harold DePriest, president and CEO of EPB] said. “In recent years, the need for faster Internet speeds has increased rapidly. Chattanooga is the perfect place for companies to enhance their productivity today and test the applications everyone in the country will want tomorrow.”

Read more about Chattanooga's journey to become a gigabit community in our 2012 report, Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks.

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.