Earlier this month, Chattanooga’s celebrated as municipal network EPB Fiber Optics announced that they now have more than 100,000 subscribers. The high numbers indicate that the network is serving more than 60 percent of premises in the EPB service area. EPB's success also attests to the popularity of publicly owned Internet infrastructure that is accountable and responsive to the community that both own and use the network.
An Expected Milestone, Big Benefits
Hitting six digit subscribership this fall was no surprise based on rapid growth and intense interest in EPB’s affordable, symmetrical 10 gigabit connectivity along with other available speeds. When the city began serving subscribers in 2009, they based initial figures on an estimate of 35,000 subscribers within five years to break even. Within 18 months, they had already surpassed those goals.
Having paid off remaining debt earlier this year, more revenue is now freed up for more investment back into the system or to put back into the community. The utility is now reinvesting around $42 million per year back into the electric system and power rates are lower for the entire community, regardless of whether or not electric customers are EPB Fiber Optic subscribers.
"Contrary to the fears some had about us spending power funds to pay for this service, our power rates are actually 7 percent lower than they otherwise would be because of our Fiber Optic network and the business it has generated for us," EPB President David Wade said.
In addition to significant savings on power rates, Chattanooga has experienced an influx of economic development as tech companies have come to the city specifically for the network. “Gig City” Mayor Andy Berke:
"Our fiber optic network is today's locomotive that is driving Chattanooga's success and positioning us as a model for other communities. It is a powerful recruiting tool to attract new businesses that need reliable, high quality power and communications, as well as a catalyst for launching startups and expanding our existing businesses."
A 2015 report by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) Economist Bento Lobo estimated that the network had brought 5,200 new jobs and $1.3 billion in new benefits to the city.
While economists such as Lobo look at the dollars and cents the network has generated, soft benefits, such as better connectivity in the schools, libraries, and healthcare institutions add benefits that aren’t necessarily quantifiable. For example, the city has also created a program that provides affordable high-quality Internet access for lower-income families via the network and private sector competitors have stepped up their game.
It's Their Network
Regardless of the improvements in service or price from the national providers in Chattanooga, locals seem to prefer their local network, says EPB Chairman Joe Ferguson. "We make sure we treat people they way we want to be treated and do what we say, " Ferguson said. This past summer, EPB was rated as a top internet provider by J.D. Power and Associates surveys.
The community and EPB celebrated on October 20th with a festival at the city’s Miller Park.
For more on the history of EPB Fiber Optics, listen to Christopher interview Harold DePriest, the man behind the initiative to develop the network. Christopher spoke with Harold for episode 230 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast in November, 2016.