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BBC World Service Visits Chattanooga

Over the past few years, a number of media outlets have spotlighted Chattanooga’s rebirth from “dirtiest city in America” to a high-tech economic development engine. Recently, the BBC World Service produced “Chattanooga - the High Speed City” an episode in its Global Business Podcast series.

Peter Day presents the 27-minute story, described by the BBC as:

Chattanooga has been re-inventing itself for decades. In the late 1960s Walter Cronkite referred to the city as "the dirtiest in America." Since then heavy industry has declined and, to take its place, civic leaders have been on a mission to bring high-tech innovation and enterprise to Chattanooga. In 2010 the city became the first in America to enjoy gig speed internet following an investment of a couple of hundred million dollars from its publicly-owned electricity company, EPB. What economic and psychological benefits have super-fast internet brought to this mid-sized city in Tennessee? Has the investment in speed paid off? 

In the podcast, Day interviews a number of people who describe how access to the fast, affordable, reliable network offered by EPB Fiber Optics has benefitted the community. The story includes interviews with business leaders, artists, entrepreneurs, and others who recount how the community’s Internet infrastructure has influenced their decision to locate in Chattanooga. The Times Free Press covered the BBC podcast in detail and reprinted an excerpt from Mayor Andy Berke:

"The city that I grew up in in the mid 1980s was dying," Berke told the BBC. "We held on to our past for too long. We're not the best at something and that's really important for a community. When you are the best, that changes how you look at things and allows you to take advantage of and utilize your resources. Chattanooga was a community that didn't have a tech community."

You can listen to the podcast on the BBC World Service Global Business website.

Bristol's Muni A Boon for Electric Users

Business and residential electric customers in Bristol, Tennessee are experiencing shorter power outages thanks to recent upgrades to the city’s municipal fiber-optic network. And collectively, that represents annual savings of about $6 million for electric users, according to the CEO of the Bristol Tennessee Essential Services (BTES):

In an opinion piece for the Bristol Herald Courier newspaper, BTES CEO Mike Browder, said a recent upgrade to the electric system, which uses the city’s fiber-optic network, has helped cut power outage time by 35 percent:

“Our goal is less than 60 minutes average outage time per year per customer. In 2015, we exceeded that goal, reducing our outage time to 34 minutes per customer.”

According to BTES' About Us page, customers who lose power can depend on the smart grid to alert the utility to any outages:

Those customers with fiber services to their homes have automatic power outage detection, meaning that they do not need to make a telephone call if their power goes out. In addition, the system provides automatic meter reading and theft detection.

Browder offered this example in his piece:

"BTES recently had an outage that caused half of The Pinnacle, including Bass Pro Shops and Belk, to lose power. Using the fiber optic system, the BTES electric system automatically opened one switch and closed three more in sequence while testing each section of line. All of The Pinnacle had service restored in less than one minute!"

Bristol’s Smart Network

Reducing outage time is among a number of benefits that Bristol's 26,000 residents and its local businesses are enjoying from the city’s municipal fiber network, which it launched in 2005. The city also uses the infrastructure for fast, reliable, affordable connectivity in the community.

Browder said BTES’s broadband division pays for most of the cost of the fiber system.

“The electric customers pay only a small portion and experience a much more reliable electric system with more than $6 million a year savings because of the fiber optic system and the way we use it. Through this system, BTES is able to read more than half of the electric meters. This system is able to detect a power outage the second it occurs. Each substation automatically reports data and problems at the speed of light, and resolves those problems — again, at the speed of light, helping to prevent many outages altogether.”

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Browder also noted that the community's fiber-optic network is used to monitor its load managed water heater program. The program monitors and manages water temperature inside customers' water heaters, switching the appliances on an off automatically to save energy. The program cuts costs to BTES and customers to the tune of $1 million per year

Other Cities Enjoy Smart Savings

Bristol is just one of a growing number of cities whose electric utilities benefit from their connection with the municipalities’ fiber usage and monitoring. For example, in Chattanooga, Tennessee; the EPB (Electric Power Board) held electric utility rates steady for four years because it was achieving considerable savings due to the municipal fiber network.

Morristown, also in Tennessee, has experienced significant savings in operational efficiencies and electricity consumption due to their fiber-optic enabled smart meter program.

You can learn more by listening to Chris's December 2012 conversation with Dr. Browder in episode #24 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

EPB, Power of Munis In "The Nation"

This week in The Nation, Peter Moskowitz highlighted some of the nation's fastest municipal networks, bringing these Gig cities to a new level of national awareness. From Sandy, Oregon, to Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Moskowitz touted these networks as a main reason the cities have been able to attract entrepreneurs and businesses.

The focus of the article was on Chattanooga's EPB Fiber network, how it propelled the city into the 21st century, and continues to spark innovation. Chattanooga's EPB now boasts a subscribership of 82,000 -- testimony to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity and good customer service.

“Really, these last two years you’ve seen it pick up steam,” said Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). “It’s just going to keep on spreading.”

Six years ago, Chattanooga was the only city offering publicly owned 1-gigabit Internet. Today, over 50 communities do, according to ILSR, and there are over 450 communities in the United States offering some form of publically owned Internet. Many municipal networks are in small towns and rural areas where private high-speed Internet is hard to come by. But several dozen are in cities like Chattanooga, where there are other, private options for internet that tend to be much more expensive and slower than what governments have proven they can provide.

While the Internet network is one of many things Chattanooga is doing right, the option to obtain Gigabit per second (Gbps) service for only $70 per month is a big bonus. Other communities see Chattanooga's success and are starting to replicate their own affordable Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Gig plans.

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Tennessee Potential Partnership Between Morristown Muni and AEC Co-op - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 203

In Tennessee, this month marks 10 years of Morristown Utility Systems delivering fiber-optic triple-play service to the community, including great Internet access. But those living just outside the city and in nearby cities have poor access at best. MUS General Manager and CEO Jody Wigington returns to our show this week and we also welcome Appalachian Electric Cooperative (AEC) General Manager Greg Williams to discuss a potential partnership to expand Morristown services to those that want them.

As we have frequently noted, Tennessee law prohibits municipal fiber networks from expanding beyond their electric territories. The FCC decision repealing that favor to the big cable and telephone company lobbyists is currently being appealed. But Tennessee also prohibits electrical co-ops from providing telephone or cable TV service, which makes the business model very difficult in rural areas.

Nonetheless, MUS and AEC have studied how they can team up to use the assets of both to deliver needed services to those outside Morristown. We discuss their plan, survey results, the benefits of working together, and much more.

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 24 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Better Connectivity, Better Public Safety

For public safety, fiber networks can offer new opportunities and improve existing services. Last year, Ammon, Idaho, created an award-widding, high-speed application to provide real-time information about school shooters to emergency responders. This year, Chattanooga is continuing to improve its video infrastructure at public housing.

The police force for the Chattanooga Housing Authority (CHA) now use fiber connectivity to identify and locate suspects - protecting victims and witnesses who fear having to testify in court.

Fiber For Reliable Cameras

The Times Free Press reported on how the CHA has already installed over 50 high-resolution digital cameras in half of its family housing sites. The old cameras were connected via a wireless network, which occasionally lost signal.  All the new cameras are hooked up to a fiber network - a huge improvement in reliability. Officers can now view images from the new cameras with smartphones, tablets, and other computers. Rather than having to return to the precinct, law enforcement can see images while they are still at the site.

Installing the 50 high-resolution digital cameras cost $200,000. In an effort to continue improving video evidence, the CHA has recently applied for a $5,000 grant from the Tennessee Municipal League. With a local match of $5,000, the CHA will upgrade the video equipment in some of the elderly high-rise buildings.

The Digital Video Recording As The Witness

Reaction to the presence of surveillance cameras at the CHS facilities varies. While some people know the footage will help prosecute those who commit crimes, they don't believe the cameras will deter criminal activity. Others feel safer with the cameras in place. 

Video footage is evidentiary and often considered more reliable than eyewitness testimony. While prosecuting those that harm people living at CHS facilities and deterring crime are important, the primary goal is to create a safer environment for residents. Without the added pressure to testify, people who experience criminal activity at CHS facilities can move on with their lives with one less thing to worry about.

Listen to the Lawyers: Audio of Oral Arguments Now Available in TN/NC vs FCC

Attorneys argued before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on March 17th in the case of Tennessee and North Carolina vs the FCC. The attorneys presented their arguments before the court as it considered the FCC's decision to peel back state barriers that prevent local authority to expand munis.

A little over a year ago, the FCC struck down state barriers in Tennessee and North Carolina limiting expansion of publicly own networks. Soon after, both states filed appeals and the cases were combined.

You can listen to the entire oral argument below - a little less than 43 minutes - which includes presentations from both sides and vigorous questions from the Judges.

To review other resources from the case, be sure to check out the other resources, available here, including party and amicus briefs.

Chattanooga's EPB Sparks Local Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber Optics continues to stand out as a model for the municipal broadband movement, demonstrating the extraordinary impact that fast, affordable, reliable Internet access can have on economic development efforts. 

Now, a new research report from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation highlights the network’s vital role in kick starting the development of what has become a thriving “entrepreneurial ecosystem” in this city of about 174,000.

Collaboration, Public Private Partnerships

The report, titled "Little Town, Layered Ecosystem: A Case Study of Chattanooga," credits the EPB network as the “spark” for an explosion of economic development since the network's launch in 2010. As the article notes, the EPB estimates that since the launch, Chattanooga has seen an influx of ninety-one new companies with approximately $50 million in venture capital contributions from six firms. 

According to the report, the network has also encouraged an entrepreneurial climate in this city that had a “long history of collaboration and public-private partnerships” even prior to the network launch. The report cites examples of the city's collaborative spirit in several non-profit entities, city officials, local anchor companies and universities, and the city’s recently opened Innovation District.

Yasuyuki Motoyama, director of Research and Policy at the Kauffman Foundation and one of the paper's authors, explains the lessons that other cities might take away from Chattanooga’s example:

"Chattanooga organized and mobilized its assets to orient itself to entrepreneurial initiatives. This demonstrates what a small-size city can do when factions from different sectors focus on a common goal and collaborate to achieve that goal. This case of Chattanooga provides lessons for other cities to leverage their own unique assets and to create equally successful ecosystems."

AT&T Celebrates, Tennessee Families Go Another Year Without Internet Hope

As I write this, I suspect the "platoon" of lobbyists from AT&T and Comcast in Nashville are waking up with hangovers from celebrations last night after they once again defeated a bill to restore local authority in Tennessee. After a grassroots uprising, we thought the state would finally allow communities to decide for themselves if networks like Chattanooga's famed gigabit EPB would be able to expand.

Color me extremely disappointed - not because AT&T won, but because I fooled myself into thinking this grassroots mobilization might matter.

From the Times Free Press,

On Tuesday at the state Capitol in Nashville, a platoon of lobbyists and executives, including AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips, were present in the House hearing room or watching on a video screen as Brooks presented the bill and the amendment.

...

It failed on the 5-3 [committee] vote with Rep. Marc Gravitt, R-East Ridge, voting for Brooks' amendment and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, a one-time AT&T executive, voting against it.

Eight people voted on the bill. AT&T and Comcast formed the majority of the 27 lobbyists fighting against the bill according to Karl Bode.

People in Bradley County have either no service or poor access from companies like AT&T - but Chattanooga's EPB is not allowed to expand due to a state law pushed by the cable and telephone companies nearly 20 years ago to prevent competition.

These are people whose children have to go to libraries or fast food restaurants every day to do their homework. These are businesses that can barely compete in the digital age because AT&T doesn't view modern connectivity in the region an investment that would garner a fat return.

But alas, money and corporate influence again ruled the day in Nashville, where the Governor and others have continued to refuse to admit there is any problem worth fixing. This lede from Times Free Press answers the question of why companies like AT&T "donate" so much to political campaigns:

Gov. Bill Haslam says efforts by EPB and other municipal electric services to expand high-speed Internet to rural areas won't fully solve Tennessee's broadband accessibility issues and doesn't fairly treat for-profit servers like AT&T and Comcast.

In the face of this injustice, the Governor's first concern remains with what is fair to AT&T and Comcast, not what is best for the millions of Tennesseeans struggling with no connectivity or last generation slow Internet access.

To cover any charges they are doing nothing, they have announced an official "kick the can down the road strategy." Consider the Facebook post from AT&T executive turned state Legislator Patsy Hazlewood:

The state has invested $250,000 for a comprehensive study of broadband in TN. The report will be presented in June and will do a number of things. It will define broadband--which has a wide variety of definitions by both providers and customers across the state. The report will outline options for deployment and penetration on a statewide basis.

Great - one hopes that as parents drive their children to do homework while parked in front of closed libraries with active Wi-Fi access points that the state will soon decide how to define broadband.

This is why the FCC ruling to restore local Internet choice to communities is so important and oral arguments for the appeal are this week.

What remains to be done is a greater grassroots mobilization to demand that Nashville allow communities to solve their own problems. Republicans regularly critize Democrats for trying to enact a "nanny" state where the government refuses to let people make their own decisions. But when those same Republicans are in power, we see them restricting local governments from solving their own problems locally.

Bradley County and the local governments therein should be free to work with EPB if that is their choice. All this nonsense about fairness to AT&T and studying the definition of broadband in the year 2016 are a direct result of AT&T's power in Nashville and the dependency of elected officials on powerful companies for political donations and favors.

TN and NC vs. FCC: Oral Arguments Scheduled for Thursday, March 17th

This Thursday, March 17th, attorneys for the FCC and the states of Tennessee and North Carolina will present arguments to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on a case that could define parameters for publicly owned Internet networks. The proceedings begin at 9 a.m. eastern. Each side has 15 minutes to present.

As we reported a year ago, the FCC ruled that state barriers in Tennessee and North Carolina limiting expansion of publicly own networks are too restrictive and threaten the U.S. goal of expanding ubiquitous access. The FCC overruled the harmful state laws but soon after, both states filed appeals.

The cases were consolidated in the Sixth Circuit and a number of organizations, including ILSR, offered Amicus briefs. We have collected all the briefs and made them available for you here. As most of our readers will recall, the case focused on Chattanooga and Wilson, two communities that know the many benefits of publicly owned networks.

So, when you raise your glass of green beer on Thursday to celebrate St. Paddy's, send some luck to our friends in Wilson, Chattanooga, and the FCC!

Pulaski, Tennessee: "A Community Investing In Itself" With Better Connectivity

Pulaski, located in the area Tennesseans describe as the southern middle region of the state, has a fiber network other communities covet. When we contacted Wes Kelley, one of the people instrumental in establishing the network, he told us that the community always wanted to be more than "just Mayberry." Rather than settle for the sleepy, quaint, character of the fictional TV town, local leaders in Pulaski chose to invest in fiber infrastructure for businesses and residents.

A Legacy That Lives On

The county seat of Giles County, Pulaski has a long history of municipal utility service. The electric system was founded in 1891, and is the oldest in the state. The city also provides municipal water, sewer, and natural gas service. The electric utility, Pulaski Electric System (PES), serves most of Giles County, which amounts to approximately 15,000 customers. PES receives power from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and then distributes it throughout the county.

Pulaski is now known for its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, PES Energize, but the city's first adventure in providing municipal Internet access began in 1993. The city developed dial-up service and within five years, 1,500 homes were using the service. The city abandoned the dial-up service to offer Wi-Fi but then sold that system to a private company.

Preparing PES

Leaders in Pulaski had their sights on connectivity beyond the limits of Wi-Fi. In 2002, Mayor Dan Speer and Dan Holcomb, the New CEO of PES, began exploring a publicly owned fiber network. Holcomb had previously lead a Michigan utility that offered cable TV and so used his experience to help establish the PES Energize network. AT&T (BellSouth at the time) provided DSL service and Charter offered cable Internet access but neither company performed to the satisfaction of the community. In fact, Pulaski had always suffered through poor quality service from its incumbents.

When Holcomb arrived, the community engaged a consultant for a feasibility study to examine in detail the idea of a publicly owned fiber network; Holcomb, Speer, and the rest of the city's leadership were not confident about the results. Before the community moved forward, Holcomb felt it was important they carry out a customer survey and a second feasibility study. In the spring of 2003, the organization undertook a survey and used the results to ready the utility to step into its approaching role as a municipal network utility.

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Ready For The Next Step

Two years later, city and utility leadership felt that they were ready and completed a second feasibility study. This time, the results suggested a better outcome if Pulaski decided to invest in a publicly owned fiber network. In the spring of 2005, Pulaski developed a business plan that was approved in March by Tennessee's State Comptroller, as required by state law. In May, the city council voted to issue $8.5 million in General Obligation (GO) bonds to finance FTTH deployment and a data center.

Kelley had worked on a similar project in Hillsdale, Michigan, and even though Holcomb had asked him to work on the Pulaski project, Kelley was reluctant. Hillsdale had not pursued a network and Kelley did not want another disappointment. Once Pulaski's utility board and city council backed the plan, he knew the project had the support to move forward. Kelley accepted a position as Chief Marketing Officer for the utility. (Kelley talks more about his experience in Pulaski, Hillsdale, and his current role in Columbia, Tennessee, in episode 189 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Check it out to learn more.)

GO bonds are not one of the three most used types of financing for municipal networks but Kelley explained why they worked well for Pulaski. When a community chooses to fund any project with GO bonds, investors have an added measure of safety because the project and the loan are backed by the full faith and credit of the community. In other words, the issuing jurisdiction can use its taxing authority to pay back the debt, if necessary. As a result, the municipality, county, or other government entity issuing the bonds obtain very low interest rates. GO bonds require that the project developed be owned by the community and funds are typically used for projects that will be used by the entire community.

People Grow The Asset

Construction started in 2006, with fiber following the path of the existing power lines - when the lines were aerial, the fiber was installed on poles and when lines went underground, the new network followed suit. PES took the same approach with street lines and drops to homes. Line construction was completed in September 2006; the utility finished its Network Operations Center in November, and began testing right away. 

PES Energize began offering residential triple-play of cable TV, phone, and high-speed Internet services in January 2007 but its formal launch was not until the spring of 2007. When the network launched, it offered services at download speeds of 5 Megabits per second (Mbps), 10 Mbps, and 20 Mbps. Since then, speeds have increased. High-speed Internet access, video, and telephone are available in a variety of bundles or subscribers can purchase stand-alone Internet access for $35.95 (25 Mbps download / 5 Mbps upload), $75.95 (50 Mbps download / 7 Mbps upload), or $100.00 (100 Mbps download / 10 Mbps upload) per month.

By the time Wes Kelley left for his new position as Executive Director of Columbia Power and Water in 2012, PES Energize had achieved a 45 percent take rate. According to Mike Hollis, in charge of sales for PES Energize, the utility expands the network incrementally every year. By the end of January 2016, the network passed 5,609 homes and businesses. The utility's take rate is just under 49 percent in total with 2,729 of those properties passed subscribing to PES Energize.

According to Hollis, customers in rural areas are speeding up the expansions by footing the bill themselves. In PES' electric service area beyond the current network footprint, residents and business owners have approached the utility to ask for an estimate on the cost of expansion to their neighborhood. PES provides a figure for materials and pole attachment costs. Increasingly, these small pockets of rural neighborhoods, with nothing but dial-up or satellite, will chip in to pay for the construction. The neighborhood group cuts a check and the utility expands the network to that area.

Hollis noted that a local realtor is organizing the most recent example of a would-be subscriber funded expansion. He can't sell houses in his neighborhood where there is no high quality Internet access; homebuyers don't want houses with dial-up or satellite. He and his neighbors see the move as a necessary investment so he is leading the effort to obtain contributions from people in the neighborhood to pay for the fiber expansion.

Businesses In Mind

When PES launched, it also offered dark fiber leasing for organizations that wished to manage their own data needs. Most businesses in Pulaski purchase lit services and/or use the utility's data center. The facility housed a colocation facility, hosting services, and offsite data storage and was designed to withstand an F5 tornado.

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In 2011, Speers, who had transitioned from Mayor to Executive Director of the Pualski-Giles County Economic Development Council, discussed how the network had improved functionality for local businesses in an interview with Craig Settles. Whether a local printer sending artwork to Los Angeles or a graphic artist sending catalogue material to Canada, Pulaski businesses heaved a sigh of relief when they tapped into PES Energize. Businesses today overwhelmingly choose PES Energize - 82 percent of those passed subscribe.

From the interview:

"The golden rule of economic development is, take care of what you got. Take care of your existing industry first. There’s no question they will use it. If you’re lucky enough to get an industry to come in because they need the broadband, then that’s gravy.

During this current economic downturn, we’ve focused a lot of attention on our existing retail base and entrepreneur development. We’re teaching businesses how to maximize their use of the network so they can broaden their customer base nationally through the Internet. Our philosophy is to tie in the use of technology to help the businesses we have."

Looking At The Long Term

Pulaski has not experienced significant population growth since investing in PES Energize, but it has managed to avoid decline, a problem gripping similarly sized communities in the region. Tullahoma is a little over an hour away, Columbia is less than 45 minutes north; both communities offer potential employers municipal fiber connectivity. Pulaski made the investment first and can still compete for economic development opportunities in a peaceful setting.

When new businesses look for a location to open a facility where high-speed connectivity is a must, and search for a "Mayberry" to attract a quality workforce, Pulaski is on the short list because of its municipal fiber network.

Wes Kelley recognizes the long-term value of Pulaski's decision to create Internet network infrastructure. When we spoke with him for this article he reinforced what local officials and their constituents all over tell us - that the people of Pulaski knew the best course for themselves:

"It's a community investing in itself. Pulaski spent $8.5 million. They could have spent $8.5 million building a new rec center and a new pool but they didn't. They decided to put it in the air and in the ground to provide telecommunications infrastructure for the next 40 years. I think that's a powerful decision but it is a local decision…local control is critically important."