Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 74 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Billy Ray on the origins of the first muni broadband network. Listen to this episode here.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi there. This is the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
As part of a video project, Chris traveled to Glasgow, Kentucky, this past summer. Glasgow is known as the first municipal broadband network. Chris spent time there talking with Billy Ray, Superintendent of the Glasgow Electric Plant Board. This week, we bring you some audio clips from the project, as a special Thanksgiving treat. Billy Ray is the man behind the Glasgow network. The network began when the community was dissatisfied with services from the incumbent cable TV provider. Glasgow EPB now provides electricity, cable TV, and data services, including Internet access.
In the first segment, Billy Ray discusses why the community of Glasgow decided to invest in the network, and describes his vision.
Billy Ray: Glasgow already had cable TV. It was from a company called Telescripts Cable Company. And it was pretty poor. So I began to have conversations with my board about how cable TV works, and what -- my vision about how electricity needed to be distributed in the future. And how we could mitigate the need to build more and more generation facilities if we used the ones that we had more efficiently. And, to this day, we use them miserably. You know, most generation facilities that you see are only really living up to their nameplate rating about three or four hours a day, about three or four days a week. The rest of the time, you're paying for it and not getting that much utilization out of it.
So, that's how we came to -- in the later '80s -- had synthesized that idea enough, and had a consultant do a study about whether it was truly possible to build a broadband network that could do cable TV as well as other data communications. And the consultant said it was possible. Although the consultant that we hired turned out to be kind of a cable TV aficionado. And there was -- I remember, there was about a two-inch-thick report. And the first quarter of an inch said, yeah, this is how these systems work, and it work just fine, but the rest of it -- inch and three quarters -- was, but, it would be terrible if you did that. It would, you know, cause the earth to spin improperly on its axis, and dogs would be sleeping with cats, all that terrible stuff. So, my board was, perhaps, unpersuaded by that, and -- in those days, they used to say that the one commonality among 10,000 cities across North America was that they hated their cable operator.
Chris Mitchell: Times have changed.
Billy: [laughs] Uh, yeah. Now, they hate their cable operator, and there's only like three different ones. So -- we hate the same ones. Telescripts had systems in Knoxville and Chattanooga for sure, I'm sure some other large cities. And so they were getting the new stuff. And the small communities -- rural communities -- were getting the old stuff, that was maybe too new to throw away but not good enough to use in their flagship systems. So, we were clearly getting less than the best service that we could get, because it was more profitable. And that became one of the kernels of an idea, of why should we -- you know, why should we have to make do with this un- -- less than modern hardware in Glasgow, and, as a result, not have the full complement of channels available, and all the other -- the best entertainment stuff?
Lisa: The Glasgow Electric Plant had to reinvent themselves, to breathe life into the cable network. Here, Billy Ray describes how the community began to experiment with local television. Glasgow's local programming allowed citizens to connect to the community, and has remained popular with the locals.
Billy: We had to become savvy marketeers. And if you've ever been around an electric utility, you know what a huge evolutionary leap that's going to have to be. But we -- we began to, luckily -- attracted a team of really sharp young guys and girls, that loved to play with this broadband network, and experiment with what it would do, and find little trinkets that worked. And video cameras had been invented, in 1988, and we bought several of them, and each -- a lot of us had kids that were playing Little League Baseball at the time. And so, unable to afford a legitimate camera crew, we bought some VHS cameras and handed them out to the people who were going to the Little League Park anyway, that night, and asked them to capture video of Little League ball games. And it became very popular. And we evolved into doing the City Council meetings. And fiscal court meetings. And, as I said, probably the biggest discovery we made in the locally-originated programming world was when we discovered that every Friday, in Barren District Court, they had a small claims court. And the judge allowed us to bring a camera in there and tape local people suing each other. Very exciting programming. I mean, we got a lot of customer converts from Telescripts Cable Company to us because they wanted to see district small claims court.
Chris: Reality TV.
Billy: That's right. Yeah. Long before networks discovered it.
Lisa: Here, Billy Ray reflects on how the people of Glasgow each took advantage of the network, in harmony with their own needs.
Billy: And, you know, there's a -- I think every community has a patriotic zeal to be better than their neighboring community. And there are also, I contend, sharp people in every community, looking for an opportunity. And we provided a fertile field for some bright people to come in and say, if I gave you this system that could pass signals -- pass data -- back and forth between this point and 15,000 other points in the community, what would you do with it? And schools produced people that were interested in exploiting that. And we found people who were interested in exploiting that. Again, largely driven by the competition. By, you know, having a extremely large and well-financed competitor trying to run us into the ground caused people to develop an entrepreneurial response, that allowed them to find ways to make broadband serve the community in ways the people had not yet thought of. And we thought that that continued to resonate with what electric power had done.
You know, people said they wanted lights. They really were surprised that you could also wash clothes and dishes and cook with it. They wanted the lights. It was the entrepreneurs, often, you know -- post FDR, post New Deal. It was the local people that were responding to the requests of the local residents to get them lights that also discovered, hey, there's a lot of other cool stuff you can do with this electricity stuff. We just repeated that, 80-90 years later, and said there's a lot of cool stuff you can do with this broadband stuff. And let us show you. And we discovered that people wanted us to democratize technology. We already knew that nobody really wanted to be taught what a kilowatt-hour was. They just wanted to enjoy the benefits and get a simple bill every month. And if they could afford it, that's fine.
Lisa: This Thanksgiving, we're adding Glasgow and Billy Ray to our list of things to be thankful for. Without his work, and the community's pioneering spirit, municipal networks would not be as prevalent today. The Glasgow Electric Plant Board website, glasgowepb.net , offers detailed information on the network's history. Both the essays and the FAQs are great places to learn about the story. Muninetworks.org also provides several stories, video and audio resources about Glasgow. Just follow the "glasgow" tag.
Feel free to contact us with questions or ideas for future podcasts. You can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets . This show was released on November 26th, 2013. Thank you to the group Haggard Beat for their song, "Lazlo," licensed using Creative Commons. Have a great day and a happy Thanksgiving.