Downtown Knoxville’s Broadband Internet Access Kinda Sucks. Can It Be Fixed?

“Hey Madeline Rogero... I heard a rumor that there was a bunch of fiber optic cables run in the underground utility wells Downtown in the 90’s by a company that is now defunct,” Art Carmichael wrote on Facebook in early March. He tagged Mayor Madeline Rogero, the city, Knoxville’s Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons, Downtown Coordinator Rick Emmett, and a handful of other active downtown residents and business owners—including AC Entertainment’s Ian Blackburn and developer David Dewhirst.

His query hit on a problem that many downtown residents and workers gripe about: the lack of consistent broadband access.

It’s no secret that there are many places downtown that get less-than-amazing Internet service—while some buildings have perfectly fine Internet connections, others suffer from substandard speeds or don’t get broadband service at all.

Carmichael, a resident on Gay Street, has tried to get broadband Internet access through the two main providers who serve downtown—Comcast and AT&T—with frustrating results.

“I tried to get Comcast to install a line to my apartment but, unfortunately, they sent an installer that was an actual Comcast employee, as opposed to a contractor. The installer told me that cable/broadband was not available in my building,” Carmichael says. “When I mentioned that the Comcast customer service person that I talked to mentioned that they had a few active accounts in my building, he told me that the accounts were installed by contractors who only get paid for completed installs, so they’re willing to run lines illegally to get the install done.”

Carmichael added that the employee said his building hadn’t been “officially set up for cable,” which made those lines running across a nearby alley illegal.

He’d called Comcast after his AT&T DSL connection went from about 5 to 8 megabits per second to only 7 kilobits per second (the national average Internet speed is about 5 megabits per second).

“[AT&T] sent six or seven techs out, sold me a new modem, and never could fix the problem,” Carmichael says. “The last tech explained that ... the problem was probably a compromised line somewhere in the walls between the box outside and my apartment and, even if they could get permission from my landlord to tear out all of those old lines and re-run new lines, they’d never go through all of that expense and time to save one account.”

Carmichael was able to resolve his problem by turning to his Verizon phone provider and using his grandfathered-in unlimited data plan to access the Internet. He uses an app to tether his devices—meaning he wirelessly connects them to the Internet provided through his phone’s data plan.

But not everyone wants, or is able, to pay Carmichael’s typical $100 cell phone bill, plus a cable and Internet bill, just to be connected downtown. Over the past 10 years, the city of Knoxville has made a concerted effort to make downtown the place to be, especially for small businesses. Redevelopment districts have been identified, tax credits have been granted to developers to revamp historic buildings, and the city set up a brand-new entrepreneur center on Market Square this year. But in the 21st century, necessary infrastructure to bring new businesses downtown does not stop at smooth roadways and attractive storefronts.

“[Broadband] is critical for jobs. Everything we’re doing…revolves around the Internet, accessing information,” says Eric Ogle, a researcher at the University of Tennessee’s Howard J. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy who studies Internet access and community development.

Yet there are sections of downtown where broadband Internet access is limited or unavailable. Residents like Carmichael are forced to choose between one Internet provider who may not offer fast connection speeds to its customers, or no Internet at all. Businesses like AC Entertainment, for which high-speed Internet is vital to its success, have to wait months to get adequate Internet access. And experiences such as those are not exactly welcoming to small businesses or entrepreneurs who’d like to be downtown.

“Just having broadband available kind of leads an entrepreneurial spirit,” Ogle says, particularly in urban areas. “You have people coming together and bringing their ideas, and the Internet is a facilitator to some of that. Those entrepreneurs turn out to have successful businesses…and helps get those ideas out.”

So why is Knoxville lagging behind even smaller nearby cities in providing a fast, affordable broadband network in its business district? And what will this mean for the city’s competitiveness in the digital age?

***

Carmichael’s comment about the rumored unused fiber optics downtown did manage to attract some serious attention from key city players. Bill Lyons and Rick Emmett, who took the lead as the main city representatives throughout the discussion on what can be done about downtown’s Internet, held a city-hosted meeting at the new entrepreneur center on Market Square on April 4 to hear from other residents and business owners downtown. About 50 people attended, including representatives from both Comcast and AT&T.

The unused fiber rumor was addressed quickly. There probably is under-utilized or unused fiber optic cable in pockets of downtown, Lyons said. The fiber optic cables are protected underground by conduit pipes, most of which are owned by KUB. Any company can lease conduit space and run fiber optics cables through them. But the conduit is aging (Rick Emmett estimates Gay Street hasn’t been updated in 20 years), and there’s not enough of it along main downtown corridors like Gay Street, which means there is a limited number of fiber optic cables. They don’t always have the capacity to handle all the Internet traffic from businesses and residences along the street. That, Lyons says, causes Internet slowdowns and interruptions.

“The fiber is not sitting there [unused] on Gay Street. On Gay Street, there are literally no pipes to put it in—there’s just no room,” he says. And that’s what stops Internet companies from being able to serve some buildings. For example, if there is no conduit space available along Gay Street for lease by an Internet provider, that provider probably won’t be able to serve buildings on the street.

Outside of downtown, fiber optics are usually run through above-ground power lines. They’re easily accessed by cable companies when new customers request an Internet connection where more fiber optic lines are needed to handle the Internet traffic. However, downtown’s fiber optics are all run underground. Roads have to be torn up to install more conduit and fiber optics, and that expense is borne by the company installing the lines, and the customer who requested the service.

“It would take a lot of coordination and it’s very expensive to do. That’s why you don’t see it happening that often,” Emmett says.

Aging infrastructure is also a problem on private property downtown, much of which consists of old or historic buildings.

“Sometimes the service can get to the building, but sometimes the building itself has very substandard wiring. You can work on a new development and make sure that it’s all made to be connected,” Lyons explains.

“Some of the buildings themselves were not wired to begin with. It’s a private property matter that we can never resolve,” Emmett adds. “These are all buildings that were remodeled in the ’90s or earlier, and it just wasn’t contemplated. Now they have what they have and they’re trying to do what they can.”

That’s not to say it’s impossible to re-wire old buildings and get them set up for Internet connections. Russell Byrd is Comcast’s director of government and public affairs, and was at the public meeting in April. He says that when potential customers call to ask for service, Comcast sends out a construction team to survey the area, find out where the nearest point of connectivity is to the location, and then give that person or business a quote on how much Comcast is willing to pay to connect that building to the Internet, and how much of the customer will have to pay. And that’s if the company has conduit close enough to connect the building to the Internet. (That’s the problem Carmichael ran into with Comcast.)

“It just gets more expensive in downtown areas because of cutting sidewalks and cutting the streets and doing those repairs,” Byrd says. But, “there are areas where, if there’s no conduit in the area, the availability for us to install any cable for broadband access is severely limited.”

***

The Internet business is a tough one to break into, Eric Ogle says, and Knoxville is in a weird spot. First, Knoxville’s utility board doesn’t provide Internet like Chattanooga, Morristown, or Bristol, so the city must rely purely on private companies to provide the broadband access. Second, Ogle says, “Knoxville does have fewer choices when compared to other cities around the country. While there are several providers in the region, very few of them overlap their coverage footprint.”

But it’s also difficult for a new company to break into a market in which it doesn’t have a presence. Even if, when surveyed, potential customers say they would subscribe to the new service, getting them to actually subscribe is another story. Ogle was a proposal reviewer for the Department of Commerce when federal stimulus funds were being distributed to networks around the country.

“The average claim was that 38 percent of homes [surveyed] would subscribe, but as of summer of 2012, the ‘take rate’ average was 12 percent. Point being, just because broadband is available doesn’t mean people will subscribe,” he says. “And maybe that’s where local governments and [universities] need to come together to raise of awareness of benefits to residents and businesses.”

Lyons and Emmett agree, and add that those conditions have prevented companies with a smaller presence in Knoxville, like Knology and Charter, from breaking into the downtown market.

“They’re trying to get here. And I guess trying to get into the market when you haven’t been here has been cost prohibitive to them,” Emmett says. “But they haven’t gotten into this market because they haven’t been here [as long as AT&T and Comcast]. Also, it’s so much money to get into the market.”

“There are real costs to entry downtown because you can’t just string a wire. Once you’re into that underground with limited capacity, a new outfit would run into those same issues [faced by AT&T and Comcast],” Lyons adds.

The main cost of installing new or more conduit and fiber, as Byrd alluded to, is tearing up roads.

“The largest element of deployment costs is not the fiber itself, but the placement costs associated with burying the fiber. These placement costs can, in certain cases, account for almost three-quarters of the total cost of fiber deployment,” Ogle says. And that cost is what can keep smaller companies out of downtown.

***

The comparisons to gigabit-network superstar Chattanooga are inevitable. That was the first point Lyons and Emmett addressed at the April meeting.

Danna Bailey is the vice president of corporate communications for Chattanooga’s municipal utility EPB (formerly the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga) and says that unlike KUB here in Knoxville, Chattanooga’s EPB provides electricity and Internet access. Five years ago, EPB decided it needed to create a “smart grid” to reduce power-outage time in the city. To do that, they needed a top-notch communication network.

“What we were planning to do, we thought would take us about 10 years. We were able to do it in three,” Bailey says. “We took out a bond issue in 2008 and we started the process of building, and not very long after that, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act went into place. So we applied for, and were awarded, a $111 million matching grant from the Department of Energy. So that grant didn’t really change anything about what we were planning to do anyway, but it allowed us to do it a lot faster. We would’ve done it even without that [grant].”

And that’s how Chattanooga became the “Gig City,” Bailey says. The city matched the Department of Energy grant for a total of about $220 million, and utilized EPB employees to build out the 8,000 miles of fiber optics cables throughout the six-county area EPB serves and began providing the fastest Internet in the country. EPB employees did all of the business planning and design work of the network, selected the vendors for the pieces of the network, and then built the network themselves, alongside temporary contractors. Then, as people and businesses began to sign up for the EPB Internet access, they went to each location and connected the building to the network for no cost to the resident or business, though the cost of installation, Bailey says, is basically rolled into their monthly subscription rate. (Private cable and Internet companies did and continue to provide DSL.) The benefits of the build-out are wide-ranging, she says, from reducing power outage time to attracting new businesses to the city.

“It’s been a positive asset in terms of economic development, raising the community profile, and giving smart, technical people a platform to roll out the next generation of applications and businesses,” Bailey says. “We know a company who specifically cited this network as one reason to come here. And then entrepreneurial startups! When entrepreneurs succeed, and business succeeds, business comes to town, that also benefits everybody.”

Already, tech companies are utilizing the available 1,000 megabits—or the gigabit—per second speed to develop software for various high-tech solutions and resources, she says. Banyan, a startup company aiming to develop “version control and collaboration” software that would allow researchers to share large-format projects over the Internet and save different versions for their own use, came to Chattanooga specifically to take advantage of the gigabit per second Internet speed.

The National Center for Computational Engineering, which is part of the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, is also taking advantage of the amount of Internet bandwidth available through EPB’s network by developing disaster mitigation software. “So in the event of a chemical spill or a dirty bomb or something that contaminates the air, this software can use remote sensors and also communicate with emergency response people to determine which direction the wind is blowing, and which evacuation routes should be used for the community. It requires a lot of bandwidth,” Bailey explains.

But it’s not just tech companies and organizations that are utilizing the lightning-fast Internet. Bailey says a local radiologist used to process and diagnose images he’d taken of patients in 24 hours. “He can now do it in 15 minutes,” Bailey says. “That’s beneficial not only for his business because he can be more productive, but it also is beneficial for his patients, who know earlier what is going on with their bodies and they can start planning treatment.”

And Bailey believes Chattanooga will continue to be on the forefront of technological advances.

“We think about when electric power first became available, we didn’t know what to do with it other than replace a kerosene lamp with a light bulb. Once it became ubiquitously available, think about all the things that have been created and invented and all the money that’s been made and jobs that have been created because that infrastructure was available. We really believe that true high-speed Internet is the next electric power in that way. For the smart people who develop and code, [high-speed broadband] removes a barrier for that. It gets a roadblock out of their way,” she says.

And she’s right, Ogle says.

“Broadband is considered a traditional infrastructure these days. It’s no longer sewer and roads. It’s water, sewer, roads, and Internet now,” Ogle says. “Also, just having broadband available kind of leads an entrepreneurial spirit. It’s the foundation that lets someone build a future on that infrastructure you have. You want broadband more than you don’t want it, for sure.”

***

Ian Blackburn (a former Metro Pulse employee) is in charge of AC Entertainment’s IT department. The company’s offices in the Conley Building downtown had to get over a major speed bump in order to get the Internet service they needed to continue to be a major national entertainment company. (They’re the founders and producers of Bonnaroo, Big Ears, and Forecastle, among other music festivals, and currently operate the Tennessee and Bijou theaters.)

When AC moved into the Conley Building in 2007, all they required was a T1 line—an alternative to DSL—with a speed of 1.5 megabits per second. But within a couple of years, they needed to increase their bandwidth and got an AT&T DSL line with a speed of 6 megabits per second. But even that became too slow as technology advanced, and the amount of bandwidth the company needed grew.

“We do a lot of collaborative work with people in numerous locations, so it’s necessary to use shared remote file storage like Dropbox. We frequently videoconference via GoToMeeting. We produce most of our promotional material in-house and distribute it electronically to media outlets, and some of those files are huge. We’re always researching new bands, and streaming audio/video is essential for that,” Blackburn says.

Blackburn says that since Comcast couldn’t serve their building, AC spent a year looking for a way to get the Internet speeds they needed.

Enter Windstream Communications, a broadband provider whose main customers are businesses and rural residents. In 2006, the company acquired the local telephone operations of Alltel, and most of Alltel’s wireless markets were acquired by AT&T in 2009. Through an agreement with the company, Windstream uses AT&T fiber optic cables to provide AC and all of the Conley Building’s tenants with high-speed Internet access.

Windstream set up a Metro Ethernet circuit for AC, which is similar to a local area network, and supports high Internet speeds at a price point within the company’s budget. Blackburn says AC’s average Internet speed during the workday is about 5 megabits per second. “But being able to spike it up in shorts bursts of 30 to 40 megabits when needed is crucial,” he says.

“On one occasion in our DSL days, we had to download a video spot from an artist management site, make a few edits, burn it to disc, and get it to FedEx that day. The browser was estimating over an hour remaining for the download, which would miss the FedEx cutoff point. I remotely logged into a server in my living room, started the download, jumped on my bike, pedaled home, burned the file to a DVD, and was back in the office inside of 20 minutes,” he says. “The problem got solved, but that’s a ridiculous way for a company to have to operate. You can’t do business if you can outrun your Internet on a bicycle.”

The Tennessee Theatre and the Bijou Theatre, Blackburn says, still use AT&T DSL. As Bill Lyons said at the city meeting in April, the conduit along Gay Street is at its capacity, and that means that too much Internet traffic can cause seriously slow speeds in the buildings along the street. Since a Metro Ethernet circuit is out of both venues’ budget, DSL is the most cost-effective way to connect to the Internet right now.

“If the DSL drops out, that takes the ticketing system down with it. If that happens a half-hour before show time, it’s a real problem,” Blackburn says.

Blackburn’s favorite solution to the Tennessee Theatre and Bijou Theatre’s slow Internet problem (and the rest of downtown’s similar issues) would be a wireless Internet service provider (WISP). WISPs operate primarily in rural areas, and usually mount satellite dishes or antennas on buildings they serve. They have to then mount their connection equipment on elevated structures like radio or water towers in order to get their customers online. If a WISP wanted to set up shop and serve downtown Knoxville, they’d have to mount their equipment on top of a building to avoid interference.

“It’s not a perfect solution. You always want physical wiring wherever you can get it. But if you can’t get it, wireless Internet is a great option,” Blackburn says. “[Knoxville doesn’t] need fiber-to-the-door like Chattanooga has. A WISP will do, and it’s something we can do now while we’re looking to the future for more substantial infrastructure improvements.”

Rick Emmett says he’s been in touch with Skyrunner, a WISP that operates in Asheville, N.C., but says they’d need a contract with the city to get started in Knoxville. So far, the city’s strategy is to let companies come to them. “We want to make sure we’re on top of the whole business of the wireless providers so that if folks call us, we can be encouraging of them to come to our market and take a look at it,” Emmett says.

***

Consistent and good-quality broadband access doesn’t just create jobs and innovation (although that’s obviously a huge plus for any city). It can also help increase civic engagement.

“From a city planning perspective, you want to have more people give more input into the operations and the planning of your city. So [cities are] trying to find a way to do that with their citizens,” Ogle says.

That’s how the city’s quest for information began—on the Internet. It’s also the medium through which they’re seeking some answers. Last month the CBID posted a survey for downtown residents and workers to fill out in order to get a good handle on where Internet is good downtown, and where it’s not as good.

What CBID director Michele Hummel, Emmett, and Lyons basically hope to learn from the survey is where the city should encourage providers to be more proactive in working with customers to get better Internet connections, be that via new conduit and fiber optics under the streets, or by working with building owners to get older buildings rewired to provide affordable Internet service to all the tenants.

But so far only about 53 people have responded to the survey.

“What we’ve got [from the survey] is maybe five people in one building, three people in another. It’s just not going to be that broad—so far,” Emmet says.

Hummel says she plans to specifically request people who live and work in all parts of downtown to answer the survey. “We want to make sure we get an audience from all around downtown ... and get a good sample survey,” she says.

Emmett and Hummel both say they’d like to have survey results by June or early July, and follow it up with another community meeting to talk with residents and businesses about what the next step for all involved should be.

“We’re talking about trying to create this map that shows the findings from the survey, and then trying to get the residents, the property owners downtown back together with whatever provider wants to show up,” Emmett says.

In the original Facebook post that nudged the city, Art Carmichael brought up a theory that businesses might not be moving downtown at the rate they would if broadband was consistently available at affordable prices everywhere.

Knoxville City Councilman Marshall Stair, who lives downtown, has been a board member of the CBID for close to three years, and has only recently begun to hear about the troubles businesses have had getting good Internet service. He suspects, like Carmichael, that small businesses or entrepreneurs may contemplate moving downtown, find out that other businesses have had some serious obstacles in getting fast broadband service, and decide to look elsewhere around town without notifying the city or the CBID.

“This may not [have been] a problem because people realize that certain office space they can’t get the speeds they need so they go somewhere else. They don’t complain to anybody. So, it could be hurting downtown office market without us even realizing it,” he says.

Hummel says she has not heard of any such specific examples yet. “We’ve not had anyone say they wanted to come downtown and couldn’t because they couldn’t get broadband [access],” she says.

***

Another step the city will take is to give Internet providers plenty of heads-up when the city plans projects that will involve accessing the underground pipes. That’ll make it easier for providers to lay more conduit and fiber optics without having to foot the bill for tearing up the roads and interrupting traffic.

“[Cable companies] were already invited to the pre-construction meetings. We had all the providers … and sometimes they’d take an interest, and sometimes they wouldn’t. I think they will take an interest now,” Emmett says. “As we re-do Jackson, re-do the ramps, I’m sure we’ll be laying more conduit in there for everybody to use when that happens.”

But cities such as Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Phoenix are taking that idea a step further, Ogle says, with “Dig Once” laws, some of which go as far as saying roads can’t be dug up again for five years.

“And taking it further, states like Arizona, Colorado, South Dakota and others are discussing measures that would force local entities to lay conduit and fiber optic cables in the ground any time a roadside trench is open for any reason,” he says.

But ultimately, the city is going to be the middleman—the facilitator—of private market business. Lyons says the biggest factor in dissuading the city of Knoxville from Chattanooga-level involvement in the Internet business is its $220 million price tag. “That’s all we need to know,” he says. But he also points out that “the technology changes so fast, it’s always so risky.”

But Ogle says more than 340 municipal Internet networks exist in the U.S., and many are in smaller cities than Knoxville. “So cities must be realizing that it can’t be that bad of a risk,” he says. “Knoxville needs to ask itself how long it can wait to be competitive in the digital age. Right now, Knoxville finds itself losing not only to Chattanooga, but also to smaller cities like Morristown, Bristol, and Tullahoma, to name just a few cities with better broadband within a couple hours from Knoxville.”

“We feel a responsibility to do all we can to pair [customers], or to encourage providers to be proactive,” Lyons says.

And though the city had a contract with Knology (now WOW) to build a fiber optics network downtown that never happened, Ogle says the city’s current laissez-faire approach in encouraging business could be preventing serious competition downtown.

“Additional broadband options in Knoxville at a lower cost would force Comcast and others to lower their costs to become more competitive. We see it all the time, when an incumbent provider enjoys a local monopoly and they suddenly get new competition, their pricing drops,” Ogle says. “So it would be no surprise if Knoxville started talking seriously about deploying a city-wide network, companies like AT&T and Comcast would increase their efforts here.”

For the time being, though, Lyons and Emmett do not sound keen on serious city involvement in the private broadband market.

“I don’t think we missed any economic activities,” Emmett says, compared to Chattanooga’s network build-out. “That’s the point of this [strategy] is trying to draw in some business.”

That attitude, Ogle says, could be a major mistake in the future.

“I’m a believer that the best way to undermine investment in the future is to fail to provide the needed infrastructure of today,” he says.

© 2013 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 3

3RunHomer writes:

Focusing only on the cost of a fiber network is stupid. You need to look at the income too. Chattanooga's is expected to become profitable later this year, and they are paying off their bonds. Building their system didn't "cost" them anything out of pocket. They borrowed to build, and the income from the system pays off the debt.

SmallTownGuy writes:

You can get on the internet from downtown already. What will this boondoggle do outside of continuing making Knoxville into a mini Atlanta?

CJSettles writes:

If you want to get a good handle on why faster, better broadband will help Knoxville economically, as well as review 9 possible business models and 5 possible funding options, check out my new e-book on developing broadband strategy (Building the Gigabit City) http://bit.ly/10plNib

There's a lot of work involved with getting community broadband right, but over 340 other communities in the U.S. are doing it and seeing a variety of great benefits come to their constituents. The key thing to do is gather information online and also from some of these communities, critically assess the pros and cons, and then bring your citizens together to sort out the possibilities.

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