Cleveland Utilities (CU), serving Bradley County, is carefully searching for the best way to improve connectivity for its southeast Tennessee customers. After exploring a number of possibilities, CU sees a partnership with Chattanooga's EPB as the brightest opportunity but their collaboration rests on lawmakers in Nashville or the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The Need Is There, The Neighbors Are Close
CU President, Ken Webb knows the community needs and wants something better than AT&T for Internet access or cable TV from Charter Spectrum, especially in rural areas. Residents and business owners have gathered at community meetings. Local community leaders have passed resolutions asking the state to roll back restrictions and contacted CU directly but the utility's hands are tied as long as state barriers remain in place.
For over 7 decades, CU has served residents and businesses, providing electricity, water, and sewer. After a 2015 feasibility study revealed a $45 million estimate to build out a triple-play fiber to the entire county, CU began considering a limited pilot project.
They have been talking with their neighbors, EPB, about the possibility of partnering for some time Webb told the Times Free Press:
"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," Webb said Tuesday. "We continue to study our options (for adding telecommunications services), but we would prefer for the state to allow us to have the option of working with EPB."
Right now, the prospect of fiber in Bradley County appears to hinge on two possible outcomes. First, if last year's FCC decision to roll back state barriers is affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and legal review stops there, the EPB will not need to worry about a legal challenge.
Bradley County residents and businesses may also have a chance at fiber if the state legislature adopts legislation introduced last year by Cleveland's Representative Kevin Brooks. Senator Janice Bowling sponsored the Senate version last year and the two vowed to carry on advancing the bill this year. The bill, that would restore local authority to invest in Internet networks, received backing from a number of organizations and local communities.
Hamilton County, home to Chattanooga and its world famous gigabit municipal fiber, is located immediately west of Bradley County and ready to expand to the communities that want access to the EPB gigabit. Due to Tennessee's restrictive state laws, EPB cannot serve beyond its current electric service footprint:
DePriest, who is also chairman of the Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities, said the Chattanooga utility is eager to expand into the parts of Hamilton County it doesn't currently serve, which includes about 9,000 homes in east Hamilton County, and into all of Bradley County, which has more than 50,000 homes and businesses.
"We have developed some plans and we will develop more," DePriest said. "We've already had more than a thousand people from that area write us, email or call us asking when they can get our (broadband service)."
"We think we have the expertise and the infrastructure already in place so that expanding into these areas would help them and help us," he said. "We would have to work out the arrangement with Cleveland Utilities and Volunteer Electric because this is their territory and we're not going to go anywhere where we are not invited and where it doesn't make good business sense."