Located in the most northeastern part of Tennessee, BrightRidge has served as Johnson City’s public power utility for nearly 80 years. About a decade ago, BrightRidge stepped into the broadband space, and has since been taking serious strides to connect Johnson City residents and surrounding communities.
When we left off with BrightRidge in 2019, the utility was about to start into the first three phases of a fiber buildout to provide 3,847 homes and 373 businesses with broadband access. Since then, state and local funding as well as utility investments have allowed BrightRidge to reach thousands of residents in the area.
Back in 2009 is when Johnson City, Tennessee began thinking about a possible fiber buildout. Since then, the city of 67,000 has considered a number of approaches, eventually landing on building out a hybrid (fiber and fixed wireless) network and serving as a publicly owned broadband utility to bring Internet access to residents. Known today as BrightRidge Broadband, the utility offers symmetric speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second (for $149/month) in Johnson City and nearby communities.
Originally slated to be complete in 2026, demand and success in rolling out the infrastructure has led the utility to speed up its deployment plans. According to a June press release, BrightRidge anticipated “collapsing its 8-year build-out plan down to seven years, with 5,449 customers with service available compared to the original FY 22 plan of 2,940.” The release also cited a plan for Phase 5 of deployment, “beginning in July 2023 [and adding] 8,248 customers – 5,300 more than originally planned for the phase.” BrightRidge is currently halfway through Phase 4 of buildout, and has a current coverage area of over 15,000 homes and businesses in Johnson City, Jonesborough and Washington County. Importantly, the network construction so far has been funded internally with the help of local, state and federal funding: electric customers will see no changes in their electricity rates.
Increasing Access and Affordability
It looks like while the utility’s original plan called for building FTTH to 75 percent of electric customers in its service footprint, the presence of state and federal funding is pushing it to expand as far as it can. BrightRidge is currently pursuing $6.17 million in emergency broadband funding from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development to increase rural connectivity. The grant will require $2.63 million, or 30 percent of the total cost, in matching funds – to raise this amount, the utility is requesting that Washington County officials contribute to the project by allocating some of its $25 million in American Rescue Plan funds. With this state funding, BrightRidge anticipates being able to build out 230 miles of fiber to connect 1,800 more households in Greene County and outside Hartmantown, Harmony, Bowmantown and Conklin. The utility plans to invest an additional $2.36 million of its own money to connect these new service areas to each other, a project which could reach 5,629 more households.
Chief Broadband Officer Stacy Evans highlighted the buildout projects as a key opportunity to bring new residents to the community, as well as to spur economic development in the area. Connectivity is especially important for Johnson City’s resident retention and growth, as it is situated between two fiber broadband communities: Chattanooga and Bristol.
BrightRidge is also a participant of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a new long-term federal program which subsidizes low-income customers up to $30 per month towards broadband service. The program is a replacement for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which offered credits of up to $50 per month during the pandemic. Households of three may earn up to $43,920 annually and remain eligible for the ACP program. Residents within the BrightRidge service area earn a median income of $41,682 per year (ACS 2015-19 data), so a significant percentage may be eligible for the program.
Finally, the utility is also pursuing a small cell wireless pilot project to leverage its fiber infrastructure and connect more households, with plans to launch at the end of this year.
Extending Connectivity into the Treetops
It’s important to note that state law prevents BrightRidge from expanding its network beyond the territory where it offers electric service, even if it is economically viable to do so and residents in surrounding areas want it. So far, attempts to amend those laws have failed.
To demonstrate the powerful speeds of its broadband products – as well as their creative uses – BrightRidge began sponsoring the East Tennessee State University Eagle Cam, a livestream which allows community members to check in on multiple eagles in the area. Total BrightRidge coverage area: over 15,000 homes and businesses–and one nest.