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Powering Up With BrightRidge in Johnson City, Tennessee - Episode 542 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the show, Christopher is joined by Stacy Evans, Chief Broadband and Technology Officer at BrightRidge, the municipal network for Johnson City, Tennessee. When last we spoke, the electric utility-powered network had just passed its first dozen homes. Three and a half years later, the municipal network has passed more than 10,000 premises. It returns more than $5 million per year to local goverment via payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) (not to mention keeping electric prices low), and has driven both of the incumbent providers to increase speeds and lower prices. Christopher and Stacy talk about the value that's returned to the region, and how BrightRidge is only gaining steam - it's two years ahead of its build schedule, and using grants and Rescue Plan funds to reach thousands of households not accounted for in the original design, ensuring that as many people will get access to affordable, locally owned fiber as quickly as possible.
This show is 32 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
BrightRidge Charges Ahead with Connecting Communities in Tennessee
<p>Located in the most northeastern part of Tennessee, BrightRidge has served as Johnson City’s public power utility for nearly 80 years. About a decade ago, BrightRidge stepped into the broadband space, and has since been taking serious strides to connect Johnson City residents and surrounding communities. </p><p><a href="https://muninetworks.org/content/brightridge-creating-10-gig-communitie… we left off with BrightRidge in 2019</a>, the utility was about to start into the first three phases of a fiber buildout to provide 3,847 homes and 373 businesses with broadband access. Since then, <a href="https://www.heraldandtribune.com/local-news/brightridge-continues-broad… and local funding</a> as well as utility investments have allowed BrightRidge to reach thousands of residents in the area. </p><p>Back in 2009 is when Johnson City, Tennessee began thinking about a possible fiber buildout. Since then, the city of 67,000 has considered a number of approaches, eventually landing on building out a hybrid (fiber and fixed wireless) network and serving as a publicly owned broadband utility to bring Internet access to residents. Known today as BrightRidge Broadband, the utility offers symmetric speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second (for $149/month) in Johnson City and nearby communities. </p><p>Originally slated to be complete in 2026, demand and success in rolling out the infrastructure has led the utility to speed up its deployment plans.
BrightRidge Creating 10 Gig Connectivity in Tennessee Communities
About ten years ago, we first reported on Johnson City, Tennessee. At that time, the community was in the process of installing fiber to improve reliability for their public electric utility. The Johnson City Power Board (JCPB) discussed the possibility of offering broadband via the new infrastructure, but they weren’t quite ready to move forward. Now JCPB has renamed itself BrightRidge and has not only started connecting local subscribers with fiber optic connectivity, but is offering 10 gig symmetrical service.
Johnson City has considered more than one model over the years before realizing the current plan. After initial consideration, they decided to move forward with a public-private partnership to first serve businesses and later residential subscribers. Later, they concluded that a public-public partnership with the Bristol Virginia Utility Authority (BVU) was a better option. After difficulties in Bristol with political corruption and state restrictions, however, that ultimately ended public ownership of the BVU, Johnson City was considering options again.
In 2017, they commissioned a fresh feasibility study to build on lessons learned from their own and others’ experiences and look deeper in the the possibilities of a publicly owned broadband utility.
Johnson City is located between Chattanooga and Bristol. Both cities have fiber infrastructure which has helped spur economic development. Being sandwiched in between these two communities requires Johnson City to be able to compete or contend with the possibility of losing employers and residents who want or need better connectivity.
The JCPB also decided in 2017 to change their name to BrightRidge; they remain a “not-for-profit, local power company.”
An Eight Year Plan
Feasibility Study For Johnson City, TN
Johnson City Power Board (JCPB) in Tennessee began considering expanded uses for its fiber-optic infrastructure way back in 2009. After several stops and starts, the community is on track again, having just commissioned a Fiber and Wireless to the Premise (FTTP) Feasibility Study.
A Long Road
In 2009, when the municipal utility was installing fiber to substations they reviewed the idea of offering broadband to businesses and residents. Ultimately, they chose to focus on smart-grid development and save possible telecommunications offerings for some time in the future.
This isn’t the first time the community of 63,000 has commissioned a feasibility study. In 2011, community leaders took the results from a study and decided a public-private partnership was the best route. The community is located between Bristol, Virginia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee - both communities with municipal fiber networks that have seen upticks in economic development. Competing for new businesses and retaining the ones they already have could not have been easy while sandwiched between the two communities with high-quality connectivity.
In 2012, Johnson City announced that it would be working with the BVU Authority in Bristol as a partner. Now that the BVU system will likely be sold to a private provider, Johnson City is back to square one, but with considerable experience in its pocket.
Asking For Input
As part if the study, JCPB has launched surveys on their website for residents and businesses; they’re also making the surveys available through the mail. JCPB is asking the community to complete the surveys before the end of June.
From the JCPB survey page:
Johnson City Teams up with BVU Authority for Broadband
Johnson City Seeks Partner to Offer Broadband Services
According to a feasibility study by the utility, the third-party vendor approach would give the JCPB the best return on investment, balancing low risk with possible profits. The Power Board would provide the “backbone,” while the vendor, working under JCPB’s brand, would provide the “last mile” services and equipment to the commercial customers. The utility’s telecommunications division would be self-sustaining, and have absolutely no effect on electric rates.This seems similar to the approach of Lafayette, Louisiana almost 10 years ago. Lafayette eventually decided to build out the network to residents and all businesses when the ISPs using its network were not able to use the backbone to expand to serve everyone (the economics of building last mile fiber-to-the-home connections rarely coincide with private sector goals of maximizing short term returns). Judging from their projections, Johnson City does not need to hit particularly ambitious targets:
To reach its revenue and return on investment projections, the JCPB would need to capture about 20 percent of the area’s total market for data services, about 15 percent of the market in phone services, and about 5 percent of private data services over five years, based on a market of 3,000 commercial users.However, even those modest goals will be difficult unless they find a good, trusted partner. Most public power utilities have the trust of residents or businesses -- that trust may not extend to whoever they work with.
Johnson City Power Board Greenlights Fiber-Optic Broadband
The decision on the third-party vendor approach stems from a feasibility study by Kersey Consulting, a firm that offers broadband consulting to municipalities and public utilities. The study began in July, and examined three models the JCPB could use to offer the services: having the JCPB be the retailer; leasing the extra fiber capacity to another company; or bringing in a third-party operator to provide the network access electronics, customer support, billing services, etc. Working with a third-party vendor gives the JCPB the best return on its investment, balancing low risk with possible profits, said JCPB spokesman Robert White. The Power Board would provide the “backbone,” while the vendor, working under JCPB’s brand, would provide the “last mile” services and equipment to the commercial customers.This approach could be somewhat similiar to the Opelika, Alabama, partnership with Knology, except Knology is clearly going after both residential and commercial customers right away. The article uses these numbers, but they don't seem to make a lot of sense to me on first glance:
Initially, according to the feasibility study, the Power Board would most likely make a capital investment of $1.5 million over five years, which could include installing more of a fiber backbone to reach businesses if needed.
Johnson City Considers Broadband Network to Aid Economic Development
“Economic development is part of what we’re charged at the Power Board with accomplishing. If the current (broadband) infrastructure is not sufficient to allow economic development to grow this market, something needs to change.” If the private sector either isn’t willing or isn’t able to create adequate infrastructure, Grandy said, “then an entity such as the Power Board may need to.”Tennessee cities without publicly owned networks may find themselves in an even tougher bind than similar communities elsewhere. With Jackson, Bristol (TN and VA), Chattanooga, Pulaski, and others, businesses do not have to move far for great networks run by the local public power company.
Grandy, though, “doesn’t think there’s any question” that the Johnson City area will reap the whirlwind, economically speaking, if it fails to scale up local broadband capability. He has been involved in the recent search for a CEO to run the metro area’s new Economic Development Council, and a half-dozen candidates who visited early this month made it abundantly clear that broadband capability is as important an issue today as dependable electricity was 80 years ago.Public power transformed Tennessee. Publicly owned broadband may be necessary to keep it transformed.