Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 82 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Robert White on broadband in Russellville, Kentucky. Listen to this episode here.
Robert White: Anyone who knows me knows that I'm an advocate of the privates sector, that I love free enterprise. However, in this case, if there was ever a test case that shows where the incumbents were not meeting the need, or even not being in the community, this was one.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi there. You're listening again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
Russellville, Kentucky, recently earned the distinction of being the first gigabit community in the state. Since 2005, the Russellville Electric Plant Board has offered some form of telecommunications in its service area. In 2010, the community began developing a fiber network to spur economic growth, and to provide services the incumbents were not willing to offer. This week, Chris visits with Robert White, General Manager and Superintendent of the Russellville EPB. They discuss the situation that inspired community leaders to invest in a fiber network. Russellville is another example of a self-reliant community that took the bull by the horns to bring better connectivity to its citizens.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. And today, I'm with Robert White, the General Manager of Russellville Electric Plant Board. Welcome to the show.
Robert White: Well, thank you. It's a pleasure to be a part of.
Chris: Can you start by telling us where you are in Kentucky, and what the area around your community -- what your community is like?
Robert: Sure. Sure. We are located in Logan County, Kentucky, which would be sort a south-central part of Kentucky. It's a beautiful community, very rural and agricultural. Of course, we're located in the county seat, which is Russellville, Kentucky, in Logan County. And we're pretty proud. We're pretty close to Clarksville, Bowling Green, Nashville, Tompkinsville. You know, some folks here say that all roads can lead to somewhere. But we're pretty proud that some folks have made their home right here in Russellville.
Chris: And you have a longstanding municipal utility that is part of that great tradition there in the Appalachians, right?
Robert: That's correct. We are an electrical distribution system. We buy our power from Tennessee Valley Authority, and we've been selling electrical services for a long time, over 50 years, and we're pretty proud of what we bring to this great community.
Chris: And when did you get into doing some telecom -- some information-type services?
Robert: Well, back in 2005 -- I always say that municipalities -- you know, public power or public entities -- are there to provide quality to their communities. Unlike the private sector, whose goal is to bring some return to their stockholders. Our return is what we can bring to our communities. And back in 2005, the Electric Plant Board was hearing a lot of the need for communication networks, for high-speed Internet. Back in 2005, the only option most citizens in our service territory had was dial-up. And we all know that, even in 2005, dial-up was really behind the curve. And so, at that time, the Russellville Electric Plant Board decided to consider offering a wireless product. And at that time, we offered speeds -- it's going to be pretty funny now, but we were offering download speeds that -- right at 756 kilobits per second and 256 kilobits per second of upload speeds. And at the time, that was, you know, great, considering it was even better than dial-up.
And as the time went on, we now have a -- we still have a wireless product that we don't do a lot with at this point because of our fiber infrastructure, but we still do have some wireless customers who are getting right at 1-2 megabits per second download speeds, and right at, I guess, about 556 [kbps] upload speeds.
And so that was the entrant into that decision to offer some really good communication networks. And then from that point on, that's when we decided -- the board and this community decided -- that Russellville needed to really step it up and go forward to provide what we feel is the future: high-speed fiber networks that gives you a lot of flexibility with our electrical infrastructure, as well as offering broadband services.
Chris: I'm really interested in how you described your utility mindset. Because it seems like there's a divide, in terms of public power systems, where some utilities really want to view it narrowly, and focused on delivering very high-quality, reliable, low-cost electric power, and other people described the utility function more broadly. And I'm curious if there's anything special about Russellville that led you and the utility to make this decision that it's more of a mission of what's best for the community, rather than just being focused on the electrical technology?
Robert: The Russellville Electric Plant Board agrees with both the former and the latter. Because our -- you know, we are who we are because of our desire to offer reliable, low-cost electric -- electricity. And that's what we continue to feel and believe. That's part of what our mission statement is all about. But at the same time -- back to your point -- we really feel that we have an obligation to lead, and to make sure that this community has infrastructure that helps it to compete economically, that helps it to support -- continue to great workforce development, that brings a great, high quality of life to the citizens, who choose to live and work and play in Russellville and Logan County. And so, if you think back to the days when this country was "electrified," as I like to call it, back in the 1930s and '40s, the goal was that all citizens and all Americans deserve the opportunity to have access to electricity. We are now in a time and place where, in the advent of the same thing is occurring -- that all Americans need to have access to high-speed Internet. And it's not because we want to give them the ability to just get on Netflix. But, no, it's because of economic development considerations, quality of life, workforce development.
Chris: And was that the main reason, then, that you decided that, even though the wireless had at one point been meeting your needs, that you would need to go in and actually put fiber in the ground to connect everyone up?
Robert: No doubt. No doubt. The wireless was the first step. And that was just to try to meet the need at that time. But it was very clear, during those next several years that fiber was the future -- the "future-proof" way of addressing the need going forward. It's amazing the support that we have gotten from the business community, from the residents, from the citizens, who are proud to know that Russellville -- that has 7,000 citizens -- can be perceived as the pioneers to lead the way in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, with regard to high-speed Internet and IPTV and some really amazing VoIP phone services. And so we're pretty proud of that.
Chris: That's actually -- it's a great point. There's an incredible turnaround. Because some of the communities that have built their own networks, they've had OK services. You know, I mean, in Chattanooga -- people always want to talk about Chattanooga -- but they had fast cable, and they had DSL. I mean, it obviously wasn't good enough, but it was considerably better than what you had when you started doing the fiber. So, can you just let our listeners know what it was like in Russellville? I mean, I understand you did not even have HD television before you launched your services.
Robert: That is so true. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm an advocate of the privates sector, that I love free enterprise. However, in this case, if there was ever a test case that shows where the incumbents were not meeting the need, or even not being in the community, this was one. We had a situation -- and I won't name names -- but we had an incumbent who was offering video services, but had not offered one HD channel. Not one. And this was back in 2007 and '08 and '09, when the decision was being made. Now you and I both know: to have access to -- HD programming has been around for a long time. And so, back in 2007 and '08, still for Russellville not to have access to a local cable provider who will offer at least one HD channel was pretty bad. Now, satellite was present, but, at the same time, think back about the feasibility of folks being able to afford to buy Internet services from satellite providers back at that time. So we didn't have incumbents who were in the community who were offering anything with regard to high-speed Internet, who were offering a really high level of video services, and a great assortment of phone services as well. And so Russellville was in need of someone stepping to the plate. And that was a perfect opportunity for a public entity, such as the Electric Plant Board, who has a track record for offering these services and being good stewards of that kind of infrastructure.
Chris: Well, and that leads us up into the present. And so let's talk a little bit about how the community has benefited from this network. Obviously, they now have HD television. That's probably one of the more minor benefits, although it sure is appreciated when there's football on the television, and that sort of thing, I know. But what else has happened in the community because of this network?
Robert: It has been so exciting. The citizens here are so proud. When you're being recognized nationally as the first gig city in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. And we were also recognized a couple weeks ago as having the fastest Internet speeds in the state. It shows that this community made a really concerted effort to stay current, stay relevant, so we can continue to compete for jobs, so that we can continue to show our younger generation that there is the commitment for this community to stay viable, so please consider staying here and raising your kids here. And there are going to be opportunities for us to partner with educational institutions -- our anchor institutions. We are very proud that we are serving the needs of Russellville independent schools. And by the time this podcast is aired, hopefully, we'll be making an announcement that we are just now getting ready to partnership with Logan County Schools, to connect all their schools, and their high school, and their central office with fiber. So that's what we need to be doing. It's pretty exciting.
Chris: So, what's the benefit of being connected to your fiber, versus what the schools had been connected with previously?
Robert: Well, it's going to be a point-to-point connection. We're going to be able to provide a nice dark fiber lease for every connection to every school. And we will be the sole provider. Previously, the provider could put much of the infrastructure in place, but they also had to do a subcontracting situation with another incumbent. So, therefore, if there was ever any issue with the service, you'll have to deal with a couple of different entities. In this case, we'll be providing this dark fiber, point-to-point, and we'll be responsible for making sure that they're successful -- and it's going to give them access to a nice 10-gig access, versus a 100 meg.
Chris: I'm curious how your network has benefited the local businesses. Do you have a lot of local companies that are taking service from you rather than any other providers?
Robert: Yes, we are. We are really excited about that as well. Of course, you have to do a little more selling with your business customer. And I understand why. They need to be assured that you're going to not only have great pipes, when it comes to great Internet speeds. But with regard to their phone services, they want to know that you're going to be reliable. They can't afford to be in a busy week of business and commerce, and all of a sudden they're losing credit card machines, or their phones aren't working and customers can call. And so, we're doing a lot with business customers. We're gaining. Our take rate with business customers continue to pick up. We're really pleased with that. And we have a lot of nice, anecdotal stories of business customers who are saving lots of money with our services. And so we're competing. And we're giving them a product that they can be proud of.
Chris: Do you have a sense that the competition has changed for business services? I mean, for a business that may not even be taking service from you, are they likely to be paying less now?
Robert: Let's hope so. I always feel like we want to make sure that the needs of Logan County residents are met. And if there's cases where we can be that provider, that's what we want to be. But, as you well know, one of the reasons Google decided to get into the business -- it wasn't because, all of a sudden, Google wanted to be this gig provider. They wanted to let the incumbents know that if you don't offer the services, we will let the public know, and we will -- for the lack of a better word -- embarrass you into providing services that are needed, and providing these services in a feasible manner. And that's pretty much what we're trying to do. We're trying to say to our community, we're going to provide these services. And those who are incumbents who are here, if you can provide them, that's fine, but you're going to need to step up to the plate, and provide great services at a reasonable cost.
Chris: Excellent. We always like to hear communities taking charge of their destinies. So it's been terrific to learn a little bit more about Russellville. Is there anything else that you'd like to tell us about the community and the network?
Robert: Sure. We are poised for the future. We understand that Russellville is a smaller community, compared to Chattanooga or what's going on in Kansas City with Google, or what's getting ready to happen in Austin. But when you look at the network that we have, right here in Russellville, it's just as robust, and just as prepared for the future as those communities have in their communities. And one thing I always bring up: I'm from Tennessee -- northeast Tennessee. And I won't say where, because I'm not trying to cast anything negative on that community, because I love it -- I grew up there. But we have a better fiber network right here in small Russellville, Kentucky, than where I moved from. And when I go back home to visit family and friends, I miss the network. 'Cause when I'm there, trying to use the Internet for work or whatever, the speeds there are nothing like what I get right here in Russellville. So, we're really proud of what we're offering.
Chris: A little bit of friendly competition never hurt anyone, right?
Robert: That's right.
Chris: Good deal! Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Robert: It has been a pleasure talking with you, and we thank you for your interest, and we're looking forward to the future.
Lisa: For more on the Russellville Electric Plant Board, visit epbnet.com . Also be sure to check out the Kentucky tag at muninetworks.org , to learn more about other networks in the state.
We want you to e-mail us with questions or ideas for the show. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow us on Twitter. We are @communitynets. This show was released on January 21st, 2014. Thank you to the group Haggard Beat for their song, "Lazlo," licensed using Creative Commons. Thank you again for listening.