Knoxville Metro Pulse reporter Paige Hunton published a story last month about a common complaint from downtown residents and businesses - "Downtown Knoxville's Internet Access Kinda Sucks. Can It Be Fixed?" The problem worked its way from local talk to twitter and city leaders have met with residents and business owners to publicly discuss options.
This is a perfect example of what happens to a community that refuses to take responsibility for ensuring local businesses and residents have access to the essential infrastructure they need. Knoxville's approach to improving its Internet access is akin to crossing one's fingers and hoping really hard for the best.
Hunton' describes modern day disaster in the downtown area comprised of an inconsistent patchwork of AT&T DSL, Comcast, and a very limited amount of private provider fiber optics. Some areas have no access, others have no choices. While the city tries to encourage downtown commerce with tax credits for developers and a new entrepreneur center critical high-speed connections are missing.
City officials say the downtown area has a limited amount of aging conduit, discouraging private providers and cost prohibitive to expand. Likewise, old buildings with substandard internal wiring discourage investment from private companies.
Hunton tells the story of Ian Blackburn, a former colleague that now works for a downtown employer impacted by the lack of high-speed broadband downtown. After outgrowing its T1, the company went with 6 Mbps through AT&T DSL. AC Entertainment soon outgrew DSL:
"On one occasion in our DSL days, we had to download a video spot from an artist management site, make a few edits, burn it to disc, and get it to FedEx that day. The browser was estimating over an hour remaining for the download, which would miss the FedEx cutoff point. I remotely logged into a server in my living room, started the download, jumped on my bike, pedaled home, burned the file to a DVD, and was back in the office inside of 20 minutes,” he says. “The problem got solved, but that’s a ridiculous way for a company to have to operate. You can’t do business if you can outrun your Internet on a bicycle.”
The building that houses AC Entertainment is now served by Windstream via AT&T fiber optic cables, but many other businesses must contend with pokey DSL as the best option. City and business leaders are considering wireless for the short term:
“It’s not a perfect solution. You always want physical wiring wherever you can get it. But if you can’t get it, wireless Internet is a great option,” Blackburn says. “[Knoxville doesn’t] need fiber-to-the-door like Chattanooga has. A WISP [Wireless Internet Service Provider] will do, and it’s something we can do now while we’re looking to the future for more substantial infrastructure improvements.”
Hunton also talked with Eric Ogle, a researcher at the University of Tennessee's Hoawrd J. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. Ogle studies Internet access and community development. Ogle did not rave about Knoxville's tepid approach to ensuring broadband downtown:
“Additional broadband options in Knoxville at a lower cost would force Comcast and others to lower their costs to become more competitive. We see it all the time, when an incumbent provider enjoys a local monopoly and they suddenly get new competition, their pricing drops,” Ogle says. “So it would be no surprise if Knoxville started talking seriously about deploying a city-wide network, companies like AT&T and Comcast would increase their efforts here.”
For the time being, though, [Knoxville’s Chief Policy Officer Bill] Lyons and [Knoxville Downtown Coordinator Rick] Emmett do not sound keen on serious city involvement in the private broadband market.
“I don’t think we missed any economic activities,” Emmett says, compared to Chattanooga’s network build-out. “That’s the point of this [strategy] is trying to draw in some business.”
That attitude, Ogle says, could be a major mistake in the future.
“I’m a believer that the best way to undermine investment in the future is to fail to provide the needed infrastructure of today,” he says.
Knoxville officials don't think they missed any economic activities? Perhaps they should visit the WBIR archives for examples of companies that deliberately chose to expand in Chattanooga rather than Knoxville specifically because of Internet access. Knoxville may not want to build its own network due to the dirty tricks commonly employed by carriers like Comcast and AT&T, but they had better come up with some sort of a plan.