Representatives and supporters of the Knoxville Utilities Board’s fiber-based broadband network say it has the potential to serve as a business recruitment incentive, an accessibility equalizer and an educational leg up for students.
Starting in 2022, KUB will offer 1-gigabit-per-second upload and download speeds to its more than 210,000 electrical customers over several counties, mostly Knox, Union and Grainger.
People like Seven Islands resident Nancy Lewelling will be happy to have a new option for internet.
Lewelling, an IT specialist, told Knox News she has been trying for years to get stable, high-speed internet, but the cable lines don’t go near her property.
“You cross your fingers and if you are lucky you get on Netflix,” said Lewelling.
To get internet service for all her work and entertainment needs, Lewelling has strung together four phones into a hotspot network across her home.
All of these hotspots have data caps, after which service gets throttled by her cell company, which makes IT work difficult. Cell and television signal quality are so poor in her area that she built a portable antennae tower to catch signals on her property.
“It’s crazy enough to be an IT person and make it work but most people out here work from home,” Lewelling said.
Steve Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said building out a broadband network under the grid would create space for an entirely new, more equitable, green energy system that could ultimately help customers save on electrical bills.
“The more connectivity the power company has with the individual homeowner, the more options open up for the homeowner and the utility,” Smith said. “I know it seems futuristic but it’s moving very fast and that’s why building the fiber optic backbone is so critical.”
KUB has estimated broadband service would be about $65 a month. Service would begin in 2022 and extend to all of KUB’s territory by 2029.
The $702 million project would be funded in part by increasing electric rates by 3% annually from 2022-2025, KUB has said. After 2025, electric bills would be about $10.50 more per month than they are today.
How did it impact Chattanooga?
East Tennessee was radically transformed during the New Deal by the infrastructure projects initiated by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Eric Rauchway, historian and author of “Why the New Deal Matters,” told Knox News that the electrification of the region began a chain reaction of significant economic developments.
The growth of Oak Ridge, outside of the direct effects of the Manhattan Project, helped create the national lab system, which helped transform UT into a major research university. This led to the creation of a research ecosystem that helped invent N95 masks and 3D printing technology large enough to manufacture a bus.
Other areas in Tennessee are experiencing the benefits of broadband as a recruitment and retention tool.
Chattanooga, widely considered to have the best broadband in the country, looms large over the broadband discussion in Knoxville and nationally.
A study by University of Tennessee Chattanooga economics professor Bento Lobo estimated the broadband network there created 9,500 jobs since it was installed over a decade ago.
That same study showed every dollar spent on the network yielded four times that value in internet service, investment and power system reliability. Residential customers saved money on electricity, paying about 16% less than the national average due to broadband and the smart grid.
These top-level figures can overshadow how broadband is actually experienced by its customers. Lobo, who has been tracking the impact of broadband for a decade, cited a high school science project in Chattanooga that used the network to design and conduct microbiology experiments in the Pacific Ocean with the University of Southern California.
“There’s a global maritime company in town called IMSA, they literally moved from Florida to here to take advantage of (the broadband),” said Lobo of Chattanooga. IMSA provides real-time safety information to ships at sea worldwide. They use approximately 5 gigabits of bandwidth per second.
Lobo does not think Chattanooga has seen the end of the impact of broadband.
“I would go out on a limb and say I have way underestimated the value of this infrastructure,” he said. “We cannot, even at this instant, fully wrap our brain around all of it. But if you build it they will come.”
Trilight Communications, a broadband company working with the Appalachian Electrical Cooperative, is only about a third of the way through building out its 1-gigabit broadband network to New Market, Jefferson City and Dandridge, which lack high-speed service.
The organization started work roughly 18 months ago but is already seeing people adopt services in rural areas and small cities.
Trilight general manager and former UT policy professor Eric Ogle said the access to broadband has “enabled people not to move but to stay here.”
He said several local businesses, including an internet marketing company and a clothing alteration company, chose not to relocate once broadband was made available.
“Everybody is on the lookout for that big, big leap, everybody talks about Chattanooga, but it’s more about being able to keep the industries and companies you have,” Ogle said.
What would broadband look like?
KUB’s broadband will increase access to internet. Places like West Knoxville are well-served by internet providers, but many areas are not.
When Adrian Del Maestro moved from Burlington, Vermont, to Knoxville he spent a lot of time and energy trying to find fiber internet to meet his needs. Del Maestro is a quantum physicist recruited to the University of Tennessee to start an advanced quantum materials research group.
Finding the service he needed was a challenge. He spent hours sorting through bundles and options and squinting at service maps looking for service comparable to what he had in Burlington, enough to run a server for his work.
“The answer was ‘no’ at any price,” said Del Maestro. While he might not be a typical residential customer, running a server isn’t that strange for a business or institution.
Unlike Knoxville, Burlington has a municipal fiber network that goes to 98% of the city and several suburbs, offering 1-gigabit bandwidth, no contract fiber internet service for $70 a month. When COVID-19 struck, Del Maestro had to quickly move his team to working from home. He said he was able to do that smoothly because of the municipal fiber network.
“It was something I didn’t think about in Burlington,” Del Maestro said. “It’s just something I did.”
Equal access across communities
When they gain access to KUB’s broadband, a substantial proportion of Knox, Union and Grainger residents will have a choice between fiber and other internet providers for the first time, potentially forcing private providers to compete on price and service.
For many in both urban and rural areas, KUB broadband would mean their first opportunity to get fiber broadband or reliable internet of any kind.
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as internet service of 25-megabites-per-second download and 3-megabites-per-second upload speeds. KUB has said its service will be 40 times faster than the minimum download speed and more than 300 times the minimum upload speed.
It would be able to reach these speeds because fiber optic technology has a much higher capacity to transmit information across greater distances than copper telephone or television cables.
According to the FCC, about 46% of Knox County residents live in areas where 1-gigabit fiber download service is available.
Residents who want that kind of service don’t have many choices. Of the roughly 53% who have access to any fiber, about 2% have any choice among providers.
And even when other internet options are considered, there’s still a substantial chunk of the community with no or little choice.
FCC data shows that 13% of Knox County has access to only one broadband provider at minimum speed. Half of Knox County is able to choose between two providers at minimum speed.
For faster download speeds, there are fewer choices.
Ernesto Falcon, a broadband analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that this pattern was the norm in the internet industry. Because private internet service providers are motivated by short-term profits they avoid upgrading, expanding or competing on service.
“Replacing old telephone lines or old cable TV lines with fiber… those are big investments,” said Falcon. He said telecom companies want returns on investments within 3-5 years and are not interested in investments that took longer to deliver.
According to a report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 83 million Americans have only one option when it comes to high-speed internet providers.
In areas with internet monopolies, private providers charge higher prices for worse service. In some cases this is baked into the business model. During bankruptcy proceedings Frontier, an internet service provider, was forced to reveal that it considered customers trapped in its monopoly as a kind of asset.
Broadband industry analysts say that these infrastructure costs give early entrants to the market a significant advantage to crowd out competitors. It also dissuades companies from offering better service, even if it’s technically possible. An analysis by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance found that AT&T had failed to connect fiber in places where they already had a network installed.
Adie Tormer, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, has researched this pattern and found that it creates pockets of “digital distress.” High prices, poor service and local monopoly patterns create pockets where few people have broadband subscriptions.
“The geography of the digital divide is clear and it’s highly correlated with lower income neighborhoods and areas of low educational attainment,” Tomer said. He said that this tended to also impact historically Black neighborhoods. The problem is so pronounced that broadband advocates call it digital redlining.
“There’s nothing about Black people that makes them less likely to subscribe to the internet. It’s deeper, structural racism and structural economic inequalities in the United States,” Tomer said.
Though there’s not yet a universal model for governments to address these problems, Tomer said generally communities that make investments in broadband policy tend to see results.
Vivian Shipe, a community organizer and head of Voice of the Voiceless in Knoxville, said that holes in internet service put people, kids especially, on uneven footing. Broadband to every KUB customer would go a long way to leveling the playing field.
“That’s a real hard problem… you’re as smart as everybody else but you don’t have the tools you need to succeed like everyone else does,” Shipe said. “I see it as an equalizer.”
Gina Singletary, the Maynardville City Recorder, said that she and her husband paid $3,000 to get a cellular antenna installed on their home so they could receive direct, wireless internet to their home in Union County. Her husband went to remote work during the pandemic. Now they pay roughly $250 a month for service.
“I’ve been lucky to have some cell service but it’s still very costly,” said Singeltary. “It wasn’t a choice for us. We had to pay the cost.”
Singletary said many of her neighbors simply could not afford that cost. Because of this many local students during the pandemic resorted to going to other people’s houses, the local McDonald’s or the school parking lot to get internet service.
“Union County did a great job getting Chromebooks for children,” said Singletary. “But we just don’t have that availability of internet to go along with that good job.”
People in her community are aware that they can’t watch Netflix at home, that their kids are struggling with completing digital homework and that homes with broadband access are just worth more.
“I do believe people feel like they’ve been left behind,” Singletary said. “I think they understand the gap that creates for them but I also think they’ve gotten to the point where they don’t believe they’ll ever get it.”