Lenoir City, Tennessee, has actively explored options for broadband for about ten years. After briefly considering broadband over power lines, the Lenoir City Utilities Board (LCUB) decided the time wasn’t right for the utility to offer Internet access to the public. The LCUB, however, is making a move to to open its fiber loop assets to potential partners, hoping to improve service for people in Lenoir City and surrounding areas.
Dark is the Way to Go
At their March 18th meeting, the LCUB members unanimously voted to accept proposals from private sector companies interested in leasing excess capacity on the utility’s fiber loop. According to LCUB general manager Shannon Littleton:
“There’s 80-85 roughly miles of 228-count fiber that’s around the perimeter of our system….We’re utilizing a small percentage of it right now. We plan on using a larger percentage of it in the future. We sat down as a group and decided there’s potentially 100 pair or 200 pair of fiber ... depending on what the board says, that we could put out to the marketplace for a period of time until the electric department decides to take it back for its own use.”
LCUB has already received requests to lease fiber on the network, suggesting potential competition and better options for folks in the rural areas of the LCUB service area. AT&T and TDS Telecom are incumbents with Lenoir City, but in the areas outside of town wired Internet access is difficult to come by.
LCUB deployed the fiber ring approximately three years ago for electric utility use, but has since hired a consultant to complete a broadband feasibility study with the asset in mind. The study estimated that Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) for all of LCUB service area premises would cost approximately $127.5 million. While it’s clear that people in rural areas of LCUB territory are lacking options, the more densely populated communities have fiber service from private sector providers. According to Littleton, approximately 13,000 customers are situated within a quarter-mile of the fiber optic ring and LCUB serves about 70,000 electric customers in four counties.
LCUB chose to open up its fiber to companies on or near the existing fiber loop, rather than pursue a more ambitious plan. LCUB Fiber Committee member Joel Garber:
“We have seen a lot of information, we’ve seen a lot of proposals, we’ve talked to a lot of people….We know the potential of the fiber network we have and we have many options yet to be done.”
As a potential model, LCUB is looking closely at Maryville, located to the east. The community owns downtown fiber and has made it available to lease to ISPs. To date, Spectrum is leasing the fiber to serve businesses in the downtown area.
Lenoir City, the “Lake Capital of the South,” is considered part of the Knoxville Metropolitan Area; population has grown from around 6,500 in 2000 to about 9,200 in 2018. While there are a couple of Internet access options in town, the rural areas outside city limits don’t have the same choices.
Four major highways pass through town and commercial areas have spread out along several of theses routes in recent years. The 2000s have heralded in economic growth in the community and along with it the need for high-quality Internet access. A new hospital, expanded retail and commercial developments have all contributed to the regions need for better connectivity.