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Exploring Eastern Tennessee's BrightRidge Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 374
Even though the state of Tennessee adopted legislation long ago to discourage municipal networks, local communities in the state are finding ways to deliver high-quality Internet access via public utilities. This week, Chief Broadband Officer from BrightRidge Stacy Evans visits with Christopher. They talk about the power utility and their expansive broadband project in eastern Tennessee.
BrightRidge used to be known as the Johnson County Power Board, but limitations changed for the entity when it became an energy authority. Stacy provides some history about the region, the energy authority, and the considerations that contributed to the change. He also describes some of the challenges they’ve faced deploying over a very large area in a multi-phased roll-out that employs both Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) and fixed wireless.
They’re still in the early deployment phases, but BrightRidge is already hearing stories about benefits from subscribers. In addition to sharing a few with us, Stacy talks about how BrightRidge has adopted a layered approach at the premise that will make implementing future innovations easier. He and Christopher review some of the indirect benefits from the network, such as improved service from incumbents and improved electrical services.
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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.
Stacy Evans: The doctor there said that he had DSL Internet services. He was very challenged in working with his medical services from home. And now, he started out with our lowest package of 200 meg symmetric Internet. He says he now can pull down his x-rays and the MRIs, and he can make his notes, send it up. And he says it's just like being at work.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 374 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. We have another great conversation from Tennessee this week where local communities are taking initiative to provide broadband for residents and businesses. Stacy Evans from BrightRidge in eastern Tennessee talks with Christopher about the public utility and how they're developing infrastructure to offer broadband service in the region. Stacy describes how they've worked within the confines of state limitations in order to legally expand their network and offer stories from subscribers. He also talks about the challenges they faced as they've developed plans to deploy in a very large area in the Appalachians. He talks about how the fiber infrastructure is assisting with local electric services and their complementary fixed wireless service. In this interview, we also learn about their future plans and hear how BrightRidge is taking an innovative approach to deployment that makes subscriber options and future innovations easier to implement. Now here's Christopher with Stacy Evans from BrightRidge.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and today I'm speaking with Stacy Evans, the chief broadband officer at BrightRidge in Johnson City, or thereabouts, Tennessee. Welcome to the show.
Stacy Evans: Thank you, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: So let me start by asking you to describe Johnson city and the areas just around it.
Stacy Evans: Well, BrightRidge is the electric service provider in the city of Johnson City as well as Washington County, Tennessee, portions of Sullivan County, and a small portion of Carter County, Tennessee. So we have 79,000 electric customers, covering about 350 square miles of area, 2,100 miles of electric distribution, and 120 miles of transmission lines. So this area, we have some manufacturing. We have some universities close by. East Tennessee State University's in our footprint and some other smaller, you know, educational institutions. So it's a beautiful area. We're among the mountains, the Appalachian Mountains, in the northeast portion of the state of Tennessee. We started back in 2018. June, we launched our broadband division and kind of diversified from just electric, and it allowed us to look at other revenue opportunities for the electric side. As most people are probably aware, if you're in the region like this, we don't see a tremendous amount of customer growth. We do see some, but since the efficiencies of things like LED lighting and higher SEER rated heat pumps are coming about, the revenue use per customer declines. And that's great. The efficiency is good, but it takes the same number of people for us to support that environment and that infrastructure. So looking at other opportunities for revenue kind of brought about our broadband division.
Christopher Mitchell: Before we talk too much about a broadband and actually even the utility, did I see correct? Is Johnson City the oldest town in Tennessee?
Stacy Evans: Jonesborough is, yeah. It's a good question though. Yeah, Jonesborough is, and we serve them. We actually built it out with fiber. And it actually is, you're exactly right, the oldest town in Tennessee. It was established in 1780-something, I believe, but it existed when North Carolina owned the territory, I guess you would say.
Christopher Mitchell: That's great.
Stacy Evans: Yeah, yeah. It is.
Christopher Mitchell: If we take a step back then to — you mentioned that the broadband work goes all the way back to six months ago.
Stacy Evans: Yeah, all the way.
Christopher Mitchell: But I know Johnson City, this is something you've thought about for a long time, but I'm curious if you can tell us a little bit about the structure of the authority now because you're no longer coupled to — no longer a municipal utility of Johnson City.
Stacy Evans: You're exactly right. So up until October of 2017, we were known as Johnson City Power Board, and it was part of the municipal government of the city of Johnson City. And the population, just to give you an idea there, is 63,000 within the city limits, and then we have a large area within the county too. We became an energy authority in 2017, and that allowed us to look at projects such as broadband and be able to provide those, kind of thinking outside of the box a bit to a broader customer base that we have, so not really locked in to just Johnson City, and to at other opportunities too, for synergies that might be available
Christopher Mitchell: Now, are you still constrained by Tennessee law in that you're not allowed to offer a fiber optic services outside of your electric territory as a municipality would be?
Stacy Evans: That is correct, yes. We are still constrained that way. Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. And then the other thing was that you're named BrightRidge, and I've driven through the Appalachians down there. It is indeed beautiful. But is there a specific ridge that is named Bright Ridge or what does that name come from?
Stacy Evans: There was a effort put over multiple months to find a name that just related to the area, and there were multiple ones that were looked at. Interesting enough, earlier on, even before this, before there was a Spectrum, that was a name considered.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay.
Stacy Evans: So there was different things like that that were looked at. But nevertheless, they thought about the region, and in the terrain, there are a lot of ridges. There's some mountain areas, and the bright portion just kind of came from a very positive outlook and what we saw for the region in being able to bring new services such as broadband to the customer base. And so it was just kind of a marketing option, I guess, we chose.
Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about what you're doing then, which I think there's probably people who are listening who are thinking, "Well, this is great. It sounds like a great place to be, but what does this have to do with broadband?" So what are you doing with broadband?
Stacy Evans: Well, we officially launched the first fiber construction in January of 2019 this year. And we have an eight phase project that we're building fiber past 42,000 potential customers. They're all electric customer of ours today. In addition, we did not want to leave out the rural areas, so in areas that the density of homes per mile is just not sufficient to justify a fiber optic build, we're deploying fixed wireless. And so with that, we felt like we can cover both territories. And the good thing is we've got 180 some miles of backbone fiber through our network that was used for SCADA and AMI purposes for electric. We're able to tap onto that. And then we'll also go to regions that may be in the county for subdivisions of couple of hundred people, and we can build off that backbone and still do Fiber-to-the-Home there. But if the population is not so that justifies, we'll use the fixed wireless. So it's fiber fed, and then we're offering some high speeds across it too. As far as I know, we're one of the first utilities to offer broadband over fixed wireless that we're aware of, but we're offering a 25 meg by 3 is our lowest end. We do a 50 meg by 5 and a 75 meg by 10. It's using LTE fourth generation technology, and so that's a licensed spectrum with FCC. And looks like the future's very bright for that as well. The FCC is opening up CBRS spectrum. This allows us to double our spectrum and bandwidth to the customers.
Christopher Mitchell: And I was going to say, that's non-line of sight, right? So it works pretty well in your region.
Stacy Evans: It's more of a near-line of sight. That's probably a better term because if you have trees that are between your home or business and the tower and it's kind of centralized, you know, in between, you're probably okay to get the service. But that tree is closer to your home or closer to the tower, you're really going to cut that signal off before it has a chance, you know, to kind of go around that. So near-line of sight's probably a better term. It's using the 3.65 gigahertz spectrum range.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. One of the things that I'm curious about — I mean looking at potentially 42,000 fiber passes, is that right? Or is that people passed?
Stacy Evans: That's correct. That's houses and businesses.
Christopher Mitchell: That's going to make you one of the five biggest municipal fiber networks in the nation, but I don't feel like you've had a lot of the exposure that some of the others have had. Do you have that feeling?
Stacy Evans: Well, that may be true, but we're very early on in getting started right now, you know. But you know, as far as talking about the rating, we are the 10th largest of the 154 local power distributors in TVA service and 38th largest municipal electric provider in the United States. So you know as far as size, for other services, we are used to being there, but broadband is new to us. So that's a new venture.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. So what have you achieved thus far? I think you have been rolling fiber out and possibly wireless already too. What's the summer taught you?
Stacy Evans: Well, there's many lessons learned, no doubt.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm sure.
Stacy Evans: Some of those relate to timing for procurement. You know, you've got your RFP procurement guidelines you've got to go through, and you know, bidding out the bids and getting the process done. Things like the recent tariffs of the past year caused some delay. So kind of planning out timing those things were a challenge. Working with the various vendors — you know, we really started with some, I'll say, very leading edge technology with XGS 10G-PON and you know, bringing some of those two together with our billing systems and things like that — those were all challenges. But we learned and we got through those and we've got lot of customers out there now and growing and have a great potential to continue that through several years.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, let's talk about any experiences you've had. Have you had, you know, any customers saying that this has changed their lives or have you heard of new businesses that are considering moving into the region or, you know, what are the anecdotes that proved to you early on that this was a smart investment?
Stacy Evans: So we have had multiple statements from various customers. I can think of one, a doctor that lives in Jonesborough, Tennessee. We actually built it out with fiber, and the doctor there said that he had DSL Internet services. He was very challenged in working with his medical services from home. If he needed to read an X-ray or something, just the broadband capabilities he had would not support that. And now, he started out with our lowest package of 200 meg symmetric Internet. That sounds low in some perspectives, but very high in a lot of others.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh yeah, it feels — so you're charging $50 a month for that 200 Megabit service. I pay twice that to Comcast. I get much slower up speed, which is what I care about for many of the things I do. But I was just teasing Christy Batts from Clarksville about this last week because that's a very attractive package at a very nice price point. So thank you for giving me a chance to highlight that.
Stacy Evans: Oh, absolutely. And you're exactly right. What we're finding out is that we've got to educate our customer base on what that symmetric speed means. So, in some of the presentations that I've done before, I've told the customer, I said in the past, the Internet has been a pull type of technology. If you wanted to use it, you were browsing and pulling information down. You wee downloading files. You didn't have as much you pushed to the Internet or uploaded. But that's flipping kind of now at this point in time. The use of smart phones and social media — people are pushing videos out. In the business environment, you know, for persons working from home, those kinds of needs obviously are very bidirectional. And so, we've seen that, we realize it, and we really want to tout that technology advantage that we can provide with that fiber network that the competition doesn't have available. And the customers are starting to pick up on that. That doctor, for example, I mentioned, he says he now can pull down his x-rays and the MRIs and he can make his notes, send it up. And he says, it's just like being at work. You know, so that's the kind of things we're seeing benefits. We had another business customer in Jonesborough that one of the incumbents, he was using them, and he had about 1 to 2 megabits most he can get out of the service. Another one of the incumbents, a cable provider, said that they could build to him for $1,600. And he said, well, I can't afford to pay $1,600 as small shop. And we're able to build fiber there in downtown Jonesborough. We put it underground in conduit adjacent to what we use for electrical service today — very little disruption to the town. And he today can, have anything up to 10 gig service if he wants it. So he's very pleased, and he's told us about how it allows him to be very interactive with his catering business customers. They'll send quotes out instead of waiting, you know, minutes for uploads of some of these files. Now all of a sudden, it's instant. So some great success stories there. We've worked with some student housing complexes that were very constrained for bandwidth to students, and we've bumped them up. Where they were doing more or less a shared 50 meg, now we've got them 200 meg symmetric to each apartment. So success stories like that and many more to come. Obviously we have just finished our first phase of fiber construction, which passes about 5,800 potential customers. We have started phase two and are about 40 percent done with that. We expect really have it done by the end of November this year. So by then we will have passed 11,000 potential customers with services between phase one and two. So that will happen by the end of November of 2019, and then each year we're adding between 5,000 and 6,000 additional potential customers on the fiber. But we're also passing about 4,000 potential customers with the fixed wireless at the same time, so all that's concurrence. So that's the thing about it, you know. It's easy to focus on the fiber. Of course all the bandwidth is great, but we're also to get getting some really good speeds out with fixed wireless to communities that never had anything like this. They were very constrained with what they had available to them.
Christopher Mitchell: And is this something that's also gonna improve the smart grid? A lot of the Tennessee munis talk about this a lot, and I'm curious if you're being pretty aggressive on that end too.
Stacy Evans: Well, the fiber technology is used for our IntelliRupter products. That allows us to isolate a break in electrical lines and work around that, so we can minimize the impact for outages and the impact it has on our customer base. It definitely does. It does not really impact our AMI portion of things because we already had an infrastructure that was using a hybrid fiber backbone as well as an RF backfeed on backhaul and the other services. But there's potential, you know, because we do want to look at some layered services where we'll do some smart home technologies. We're really promoting right now electric car chargers. We're putting that out at some sites that we're sponsoring, such as a local museum. We're putting then in downtown area. We'd like it to be part of that program. So there are several initiatives that can tie into this as well.
Christopher Mitchell: The last major question that I have before I'll make sure I'll ask you if I missed anything — you know, I'm sure that right now somewhere in Nashville as we talk, there's a cable or telephone lobbyist who's going around saying, "What these munis are doing is totally unnecessary. We already have cable access out there. You know, the telephone companies have the CAF, the Connect America Fund dollars." How do you respond to that? Why is this a necessary investment for BrightRidge to make?
Stacy Evans: So we work against three primary and major incumbents in the area. They have all been here for many decades, and the area's still underserved. We have many customers that say if I can get 1 or 2 Megabits in my home, I'm lucky that night. That's most I can get. And then they will tell us they've got other services with cable, and they'll buy 100 meg and they get maybe 50 meg down. So we heard from the customer base, and we said, "We want to provide a product that is superior to anything we've seen, something that you can get the bandwidth you subscribe to, that you truly can get high-speed Internet broadband rated services. And so, we're providing something that the others had opportunity to do but never did. I'll mention this though. Since we went into the business, we have seen them raise the bar and build out some new areas and adjust pricing, which is good. All the customers win. If you are in their service territory and never buy a broadband service from BrightRidge, you have an advantage today you didn't have before we came in the business.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm glad to hear you say that. We were actually just talking about that in my office today because I think a lot of people don't realize when you make the kind of investment that you have that, you know, everyone really benefits from better promotions. And even in some places like in Louisiana, in Lafayette, we saw that the cable and telephone companies started sponsoring more local activities, so there was more money coming into the community or even sticking around in the community. So there's all kinds of benefits that come from this, which accrue to people who may not even subscribe to it.
Stacy Evans: Yeah, competition is good. And we don't expect to serve every customer, but we do want, again, to raise the bar so that the entire area benefits from new technology investments, from the higher-speed broadband, and other services too. I mean, we're not just Internet. We're up providing voice services — anything from a basic phone line to hosted voice to SIP trunking to PRI services. We also have our own IP TV solution that we're providing to our customer base, so we're trying to fit that entire triple play. And customers are eager for it. We've had unbelievable demand for services, and so we're excited about the future.
Christopher Mitchell: And are your fixed wireless customers able to take advantage of the IP TV as well?
Stacy Evans: Well today, with the current content provider licenses that we're under, the answer's no to that. Now, they can take advantage of any over-the-top solution of course. And because we knew that one size does not fit all, we have two options. We say if you want to buy our IP TV solution, we''re glad to do that if you're on fiber. If either you're on fiber or wireless, if you want to go over the top and cut the cord, we'll help you do that. We'll help you make that conversion at time of install, and we put in a managed Wi-Fi router with mesh extenders if required. And we give them 24/7 support. they can call in for their over the top experience problems and we charge a nominal monthly fee for that. So we help empower them with a choice, whichever they want to go with. You know, it's up to them.
Christopher Mitchell: That's terrific. I think we're going to see more of that from a lot of the cities that have been doing this sort of thing and trying to figure out how to navigate this transition. But I want to be clear for people who may not be familiar. So, when you want to distribute television content, you have to sign legal contracts, and it's those legal contracts that prohibit you from offering certain types of content on the wireless side. Is that right?
Stacy Evans: That is correct, yes.
Christopher Mitchell: And presumably, that's because of a concern about piracy or something like that. It's V
Stacy Evans: It would be the encryption. I think some of those barriers will come down over time, but that's the current state of things at the moment.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Thank you for clearing that up beause I think sometimes people are kind of confused because from a technical point of view, it's all ones and zeroes over the air or the fiber, right?
Stacy Evans: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, from a technical perspective, we could offer you those services on the wireless as well. That is not constrained at all. That's correct.
Christopher Mitchell: So is there anything else that I should have asked you that I've missed that we want to get into before we end it?
Stacy Evans: I do have a few bragging points if you don't mind.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh, I'd love to hear them.
Stacy Evans: Some things that we're doing that are a little bit unique to maybe some of the other deployments. So when we looked at this design, we wanted to make the network as future proof as possible. And I realize — I've been in the industry a long time. I realize there's no such thing in technology as future proof, but as much as possible. So what we did, we went with the passive optical network, but we also layered it with what's called a coexistence element. That allows you to combine your standard GPON technology, the wavelengths on that, with XGS 10 Gig PON, also with NG-PON2 and whatever else comes in the future. So that coexistence element has multiple ports, and you're gonna plug in the new technology to it, and it's kind of a combiner for the various light waves. And what it allows us to do is grow our customer base by choosing the technology we install at the customer's premise, home or business. And if they just need up to one Gig, we use GPON. If they need up to 10 Gig, we use XGS PON2. If they need potentially something more than that, then we've got options to use multiple ways with the NG-PON2 technology as well. So, this allows the same infrastructure without changing the fiber optic network out at all to carry all those simultaneous in the same optical splitters, provide both or all those technology abilities. So we were the — from what I understand, we're the sixth community in the United States [that has] announced we have launched 10 gig Internet service to our residential customer base, we're the first to launch out of the gate with that service, and we're also the first to make it available to any residential customer in our fiber footprint. They can have 10 Gig by 10 Gig symmetric service for less than $300 a month.
Christopher Mitchell: Well that's pretty impressive. I actually really appreciate bringing in the more technical discussion because I know that some people always want to hear how you're solving these sorts of things when you're making these investments. When you said future proof, I was thinking we should start calling things future resistant.
Stacy Evans: There you go. That's a better term probably. Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: Have you seen anyone taking that 10 Gig service yet?
Stacy Evans: Well, we have used it for deployments for some multi-dwelling unit applications, apartments for student housing, things like that. We have some customers that we're building in phases, later ones, that say they want it at their home. We'll see. And we realize that 10 Gig symmetric to the residential home today is a difficult thing to justify that you need that, especially since we have a 200 Meg symmetric, a 500 Meg symmetric, a one Gig, and then the 10 Gig of course, but it's there. And, as the useandf needs grow, we've got it available. We do think it's a potential economic incubator because we know businesses need it, and we've got customers today we're working through for some higher speeds like that. So the technology provides it to the home or to the business. We've got the infrastructure investment to provide all those services.
Christopher Mitchell: Well that's great. I really appreciate you taking the time to jump on the phone with us to share thiw story. Thank you so much.
Stacy Evans: Absolutely. Thank you, Chris. I appreciate the time.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and Stacy Evans, from BrightRidge in Tennessee, discussing their fiber optic deployment and broadband service. Learn about the network at brightridge.com. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is at @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcast from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount helps keep us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 374 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.