Lines of Communication: Can Downtown's Faulty Broadband Access Be Improved?

There's a lot to downtown that isn't on the surface. Beneath our streets and sidewalks, a labyrinth of sewers, pipelines, and conduits make up part of the infrastructure needed to sustain a city. With the coming of the digital age, those have been joined by more pathways to deliver the Internet connectivity that has become the hallmark of modern life. The snakes and circles of ones and zeros that light up our screens with funny pictures of cats have to get there somehow, even downtown. The Central Business Improvement District, the organization most closely associated with downtown development, boasts on its website that "fiber-optic lines thread throughout the core of downtown Knoxville." But that's not quite the whole story.

Those lines came up earlier this spring on a Facebook post by longtime downtown resident Art Carmichael that read: "I heard a rumor that there was a bunch of fiber optic cable run in the underground utility wells Downtown in the 90's by a company that is now defunct." Within hours, that comment thread was joined by Mayor Rogero and members of her staff, and a long-overdue conversation about the state of connectivity in downtown followed, prompting a public meeting held a couple of weeks ago to vet the issue.

Chief policy officer and deputy to the mayor Bill Lyons invited both the public, as well a number of players in the local Internet provider game, to sit down and discuss a problem a few downtowners have been grumbling about for some time now. That issue being that despite the growth and success the center city has seen over the past few years, there are still areas of downtown that have little, if any, Internet access. We're not talking Chattanooga-style gigabit-per-second connections. We're talking being-able-to-get-your-e-mail connections.

One topic of discussion was the hidden liability facing property owners who may want to attract business tenants downtown. While a company can anticipate some issues in setting up shop in the center city, things like connections to utilities and telephone service aren't among them.  Reasonable Internet service, on the other hand, probably is. Despite recent renovations, a number of downtown buildings are not serviced by broadband connection. And the cost to tie those buildings into the fiber-optic cables purportedly servicing the area can be astounding. I say purportedly because the status of any such cable turns out to be proprietary information guarded by both the companies who own them and the United States Department of Homeland Security.

Ian Blackburn, IT director for AC Entertainment, which oversees operations for both the Tennessee and Bijou theaters, says that a site survey conducted by Comcast to deliver Internet service to the Bijou came back with a price tag of nearly $20,000. In a recent interview, he framed the issue very well by observing that "a company looking at moving to Gay Street should at least be able to get as much bandwidth as you can get in a Fort Sanders apartment."

Internet connectivity isn't regarded as a utility by the city, but rather as the bailiwick of the private sector. In other words, the needed changes fall into the realm of something the government can't provide. The administration is to be commended for amplifying the discussion, but has likewise made it clear that any solution will have to be found elsewhere. And elsewhere, solutions can get costly.

Which brings us back to the CBID, and its core mission. According to its website, the CBID "was created in 1993 to undertake programs and services that government is unable to provide. Its core mission is to enhance downtown's existing assets and bring more people to Downtown Knoxville to work, shop, live and play. The CBID ensures the downtown area is constantly renewed and improved, so that it continues to be an asset to future generations."

Over its 20 years, the CBID has reinvested the money it receives through a special assessment on property owners in the downtown area toward that goal through several programs, including providing funding to many downtown construction projects in the form of facade improvement grants. In many cases, these grants have been key to preserving the look and feel of downtown Knoxville, and in creating the lively community that those future generations they mention can be proud of.

As of late, the organization seems to be struggling with how best to spend the growing revenues it receives, at one point putting its facade grant program on hiatus briefly before it resumed pledging hundreds of thousands of dollars toward exterior building upgrades. It may be that in renewing and improving the downtown area for future generations the organization should consider that those generations are going to see Internet service to be as essential as any other utility, and set aside some funding to see that the entirety of downtown is up to that challenge.