Neighbors Helping Neighbors For Fiber In Rural Tennessee: Newport And Morristown Join Forces - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 300

An increasing interest in publicly owned network projects has also spurred an increase in creative collaborations as communities work together to facilitate deployment, especially in rural areas. This week, we talk with Sharon Kyser, Marketing and Public Relations Manager for Newport Utilities (NU) in Newport, Tennessee, and Jody Wigington, General Manager and CEO of Morristown Utility Systems (MUS), also in Tennessee, for episode 300 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We’ve written about MUS Fibernet and had Jody on the show several times to talk about how they built their own network and the ways it has improved the electric utility and helped the community. Now, they’ve entered into a partnership with their neighbors in Newport, who also want to reap the benefits of public ownership. Sharon tells us how the people in Newport need better services, economic development, and how her organization is working with MUS to make that vision a reality.

The two communities are working together to develop a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network for residents and businesses in the NU service area. MUS is offering the expertise they’ve developed over the past 12+ years along with other technical and wholesale services that will greatly reduce costs and deployment time for NU. This is an example of rural communities sticking together and is an example we hope to see more often in the future.

In the interview, Jody also mentions a partnership in the works with Appalachian Electric Cooperative; we spoke to him and General Manager Greg Williams about the proposed collaboration for episode 203 of the podcast. Listen to that conversation here.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Jody Wigington: Yeah, that's the brotherhood of utilities, whether it's co-op or munis, but we help each other and we're in it, you know, not for profit, but we're in it for the long haul and it's been our honor to be part of it.

Lisa Gonzalez: You're listening to episode 300 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. In rural communities where population density is low, large corporate Internet access providers typically shy away from making investments to offer broadband. An increasing number of these communities are looking for ways to exercise local self-reliance and add broadband as a municipal service. When local communities joined forces to help expand connectivity in rural areas, they improve economic development, educational opportunities, and increase the chances that these small rural communities won't just fade away. Residents and businesses in and around Newport, Tennessee have an urgent need for better connectivity. Now, Newport Utilities aims to change that by bringing fiber optic connectivity to communities through a partnership with nearby Morristown Utilities. Morristown has had its own Fiber-to-the-Home network for more than a decade. In this interview, Christopher talks with Jody Wigington, who's been on the show before, and Sharon Kyser from Newport, who explains the situation in her community, the to describe how Newport in Morristown are working together to strengthen both communities and the entire region. Now, here's Christopher with Sharon Kyser from Newport and Jody Wigington from Morristown.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the institute for Local Self-Reliance up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and today I'm speaking with Sharon Kyser, the Marketing and Public Relations Manager for Newport Utilities. Welcome to the show.

Sharon Kyser: Chris,

Christopher Mitchell: And we also have a returning champion, Jody Wigington, the general manager and CEO of Morristown Utilities, also in Tennessee. Welcome back.

Jody Wigington: Thank you, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: So you guys are working together on a really exciting partnership. I was really lucky to have a chance to come down to talk to folks in Newport last year about an idea for building a municipal network in Newport that would be supported by Morristown, and now we're going to tell folks what's going on. Now that you're actually connecting folks, the best way to start sharing would be, you know, if you could just describe Newport for people who aren't very familiar with it.

Sharon Kyser: So Newport is the county seat of Cocke County, and of course our service area is all of Cocke County, a little bit of Jefferson County and Sevier County. It's a rural area located in east Tennessee, not too far outside of Knoxville, so you might know Knoxville if you don't know anything else. We have a population of just over 35,000 people, and the area is popular with artists and outdoor enthusiast, mostly because of the abundance of mountain views, mountain trails, rivers for rafting, and it's just an incredibly beautiful area. We're close to the smokey mountain national park where close to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, you know, all those folks who know Miss Dolly and Dollywood with a lot of other attractions that yeah, mostly just an incredibly beautiful but rural area

Christopher Mitchell: in Knoxville for people who aren't super familiar. That's the home of a University of Tennessee. It's really thriving, in, in a lot of ways. Right,

Jody Wigington: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: So you benefit from that a bit now. Now you also have not far from you Morristown, so you know, Jody, for people who haven't gone to the back catalog as much as they probably should have. I'm curious if you could just give people a refresher for what you've been working on up in Morristown all these years.

Jody Wigington: Morristown is about 20 miles from Newport and you know, we got into this business about 12 years ago as a fiber to the home provider. Basically just answering the call of the people who through elections of city council asked them to do something about the poor services rising rates. So the decision back then was, you know, it was really, for us, based on video and today it's all about, you know, probably, you know, more than video, been similar in size to Newport. It is 31,000 in the city and about 61,000 if you head to Hamblen County, which we sit in, but we are pretty well, I think we're at 49 percent take rate financially solid. And then that work has progressed from the pond switch digital, now we're in a conversion to full api platform there that shows the beauty of fiber optic infrastructure like building and then we've accomplished these upgrades with electronics on both ends.

Jody Wigington: But the optical delivery system state, same as far as right stability, you that you know, are Internet was 34.95 in 2006 and it's 34.95 today. So we've been able to create that stability in town. Of course the product has gone now to a 50/50 minimum will be a 100/100 minimum once fully launched. And, but we're, we're like all our brethren, we'd see a decline in video and landline residential. So. But the flip side is the Internet continues to grow. Hosted voice services and I think community fiber service's done what it promised, you know, to do, increase the competition, maybe improved products and businesses, the economic development became better, the educational system is improved, they're all connected on fiber. It jump-started workforce development. And uh, we have a lot of remote access workers who drive in to Hamblen County or work in our industry. And they go back home to the rural areas, some even from, from, from Scott County, but maybe five counties around us. So I just think of, aside from all the basics of a, you know, what it does for economic development and education is just a general quality of life, for society that is increasingly dependent upon broadband. An upside for Newport because they are dedicated to the mission, committed to their customers and they're doing it the right way. So I expect the similar results in their community.

Christopher Mitchell: We'll get back to Newport in a second, but I wanted to ask one other question about Morristown. You've been quite generous in trying to work with others nearby that would like to see your services expand, but when you were last on this show, I think we're talking about Appalachian Electric. Now, that project is kind of still on hold, right? You decided to move forward because you have this opportunity working with Newport in the meantime,

Jody Wigington: Newport pulled the trigger a little bit faster. Appalachian did a feasibility study. And Newport's study was after that. But just last week, Appalachian did put out an RFP onto the street for broadband services. We were not allowed as municipals to go into the co-op areas, but with the legislative change, the co-op can do that themselves and we hope we have an opportunity to maybe wholesale with Appalachian, similar to the way we are in Newport itself. It's crazy. And to said we've got seven head-ends so we really don't need to build any more of them if we can find a way to work collectively.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, and that's one of the things that I want to, I want to talk about is how working together take some of the risks out of the project from Newport's point of view. But the first thing I want to know about Newport, Sharon is, is what are the problems that you're trying to solve? You know, when, when you look at this from utility point of view, what's wrong with with the way things were before you got started?

Sharon Kyser: Same thing Chris is in it's very connected world in which we live. That 35 percent of our population has zero access to broadband. Some of our areas are telling us they can't even get dial-up, the incumbents say "no, we stop at this line and we can't go any further." You know, the challenges that that presents for our citizens if you think about opportunities that they're missing out on, whether it's online classes or work at home opportunities. If it's telemedicine, these are opportunities that are severely restricting growth for our citizens. Personal growth. so that was an opportunity that we saw and really what we saw is that as a challenge to our community and one that we feel like we can help them overcome as essential services. Right? So we're electric water, wastewater, we are essential to the community. We are a major community partner and we look at that relationship very personally.

Sharon Kyser: So broadband for us is another essential service that our customers need is very interesting. We actually, we've, one of our Beta customers that we just, uh, recently hooked up and said that this was an answer to prayer that so often just a throw away line, but she meant that literally a, she also says that broadband access the need. And I really liked the statement that she made that uh, she wants desires and their needs and that this is a need because of the opportunities that for her children, for her family or the community in general. And so we're just, we're -- we're excited to be a part of that and feel like that's just part of our mission as being a good community partner.

Christopher Mitchell: Some of the communities that reach out to us and when we work with at the Institute for local self-reliance or they may have cable service to everyone and they even have a hundred megabit gigabit download, but the trend to solve a problem of competition or rates, but you actually have a substantial number of people that just don't even have broadband access is what you're saying.

Sharon Kyser: That is correct.

Christopher Mitchell: Wow. That's.

Sharon Kyser: Yeah. I, it's hard to believe, isn't it

Jody Wigington: Chris? Some of those same things are in play in Hamblen county. I mean we only serve the corporate city limits and the cooperatives like Appalachian or around us. And it's the same problem in education. Some kids go home and they have really good broadband and they all have laptops now in the school or half of them too and in this four year project that you have and the others go home to a dollar per satellite or cell phone trying to complete their homework. So we're very interested in helping the cooperatives to get into the rural areas. That's where we're different community from Newport, they do have to go into those rural areas. So it's a neat here too.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about how we're solving that. Then Jody, if you can tell me, what are you doing to help new poor to be able to offer the services that they're launching.

Jody Wigington: Obviously we have a head-end so there's probably $12 to $15 million cap ex [capital expenditure] in this head-end one of -- it's an IP video plants. So you have all your channel receiver. This is something Newport did not have to invest in. We are a CLEC, we have our own phone switch but a balanced hosted services. Again, that's, you know, cap ex [capital expenditure] Newport can leverage from our side without spending themselves and we've already developed diverse redundant Internet back again, they or anyone else can elect to do some of these services and it's a hardened facility. It's fire protection, back-up power to security. Ah, HVAC, it's a, it's a nice head-end and it has pleased us to be able -- to be able to share that and help them improve their business planning. We also have a call center that we established a several years back, so it's another kind of a mature service with sales people that can answer trouble calls.

Jody Wigington: So we have some contracts with, with Newport, Chris, to provide those sort of services. Now we can't do the service. So it's, you know, Newport owns the customers, they roll the trucks, do the billing and they provide the services. They come to me and buy at a demarcated place, like they buy these services and we have two fiber routes to Newport. So there's redundancy in case one cut or something like that. It helps them get to market a lot faster. And you know, the other thing I would say is job shadow or we share best practices and Newport and Morristown shared a lot of time because over the last month, a year, I guess just trying, you know, said "hey, you know, come over to this is the way we do things that you want to ride in the trucks with the field guys, talk to the customer service people accounting? I mean, what? Whatever." So yeah, that's the brotherhood of utilities, whether it's co-op or municipal. Well we, we help each other and we're in it, you know, not for profit. We're in it for the long haul and it's been our honor to be a part of.

Christopher Mitchell: Your voice switch as I understand it, the smallest, cheapest voice switch. So you could probably get serves far more customers than there are people in Hamblen County, is that basically right?

Jody Wigington: That's true. It's, it's about a million dollar switch. It's meta switch and it is currently could do 250,000 lines, but it's upgradable to 500,000 and we have 3,000 lines. So we made the commitment because of the reliability and the type of services that we, we didn't feel we were getting from a wholesale level. So from here, so the downtown's generated here locally, we have control over that. So, but yes, it's expandable easily

Christopher Mitchell: And I just wanted to make that point that, you know, a lot of the, the telecommunications equipment is designed for its peas that are, that are much larger and so it's not a matter of, of you I'm losing money or making investments you wouldn't otherwise have made, but in fact it would be crazy for Newport to duplicate these investments because you have idle capacity that you have no choice but to get in that you can now share. So, it, it's, it seems like it's a, it's a no brainer a. But Sharon, let me, let me ask you from your perspective, what are some of the benefits that you're getting out of working with Jody besides hearing that lovely voice on a, on a regular basis?

Sharon Kyser: As Jody said, there's capacity there already in the equipment that's not being a head-end is a tremendous investment. Are Advantage in partnering with Moorestown is that we didn't have to do that $15 to $17 million investment in a head-end and it kind of reduces the time to market because the facilities are already in place, but the biggest thing that we have in our partnership, which has just been absolutely invaluable is the experience and the expertise that Morristown brings to the table. They've been doing this for 12 years now and so they have just been wonderful partners with us. Everything from setting up our our back office systems to understanding a technical support, customer satisfaction, customer service, all of these things they already have in place. That worked very well and so we're able to take Morristown's expertise and build our own systems that are very similar, but at the same time we're -- we're Newport utility, so we put our Newport Utilities face on it. Our customers, when they, when they go to a broadband service will still know Newport Utilities. They'll still be able to walk into the lobby, deal with the same people that they're used to dealing with, but then we've got that, that support on the other side and Morristown for technical support or just a knowledge base that has just been invaluable for us. Ensure. You mentioned that you have signed up some customers already. What's that looking like? How many folks are signed up and what are the plans for expansion?

Sharon Kyser: So we have nine beta customers online right now. We just got seven of them installed last week and that gives us an opportunity to really test the systems not only from a service perspective but also our back office systems and we've been able to identify some gaps in processes that were, you know, now filling in so that when we go to full market launch it will be a very positive customer experience. The feedback that we're getting has been phenomenal and people love it and one of our Beta test customers is actually an IT person at Bush brothers and so we've got him testing the one gig service and he is delighted.

Christopher Mitchell: I'll bet!

Sharon Kyser: He gives us excellent feedback. So it's really nice to be able to have someone that is technically very savvy and so he's given us good feedback on the system and how it operates, any glitches he may have encountered that gives us a chance to clean it up before we go full market launch. So we're doing this in a rolled a, you know, a phased approach we will have online in the next coming four to six weeks, about 2,000 customers that we can offer service to and then we'll just keep progressing from. There are phase one plan is the city of Newport and our electric sub-stations and you know, some of the schools, the area and that's going to take us roughly through the end of the year. We've also already gotten board approval for the next two areas in our phase two launch so we can begin doing our, our engineering and design and those areas. And these are areas of East Parisville, West Cosby, including Rocky Flats. That's one of those areas that, as I said earlier, have nothing. They're an artist community online service is really important right now. They they have a convenient store that everyone refers to as the community spot because that's the only place I can get get a wireless signal, so they like all gather in the parking lot to try to do work, so we're really excited to be able to start moving forward and be able to offer broadband services in those communities.

Christopher Mitchell: Judy, I'm curious if there's been any unexpected either benefits or challenges so far between the reality of rolling this out versus what you contemplated when you begin considering working with others like Newport?

Jody Wigington: Yes. This is a heavy lift. I mean it's not as easy as plug and play or snapping. Your fingers are tons of interfaces, intensive things that we have to do to try to comply with state, state law or not trial. We do, but it's been a lot of work and we would like to, if both of us like to have gone a little faster at it that these networks are gay are incredibly complicated, but yeah, we've done it. It's very doable and sometimes it just takes more time to change it, but yes, we've. We've learned in this project things that we would be the cookie cutter for the next one because I really believe this is potentially how you solve broadband in Tennessee, working together as a co-ops in municipals. So we, we've learned things that will be better at next time, but the problems is just incredible amount of network engineering and interfacing that you just have to do and do it right before you get out the gate. But we're getting there when smile project yet. So that yeah, there's been good and there's, there's been some things that disappointed as far as how fast we can move that, you know, you have a lot of different players in this and from the fiber to the home providers do the video. We're in the middle of an IP video change. So, but yeah, there's going to be as good as good a product is out there. State of the art video.

Christopher Mitchell: So since you mentioned that I recently, uh, was uh, talking to folks from Cedar Falls, Utilities who did an upgrade and you know, they have all kinds of Cubase the capacity to do 4k, but there's not a lot of content available or you're going to be doing some 4K?

Jody Wigington: I think Chattanooga tried a little bit, but that's what I understand is a lot of the programs are probably passing for K to go something bigger, you know, so we don't see a lot of 4K programming, so we haven't made a big, big deal of that yet. I mean, HD TV still often sharp. I don't know the number I'd be guessing, but it's very small number of programming hours you could roll out in 4K right now.

Christopher Mitchell: For people who are interested. From what I understand that really the only content that's available and really easy to get then is NASA does a channel that's 4K. but I appreciate the reality check there from -- from what you're thinking about. And, I just wanted to note for people who are interested in this sort of stuff, you know, it's hard to get the content for 4K. Sharon, before we run out of time, I wanted to ask, how, how have you financed this because my understanding is it's somewhat unique and actually was a tremendous opportunity.

Sharon Kyser: There are a couple of things that we're doing, but the biggest thing that's really unique is that we're, we have approached this as a smart grid project, so, you know, connecting our electric sub-stations, getting all of the data from SCADA and AMI and all of that. So we were able to get a USDA rural development loan for a smart grid project that's a long term, very low interest loan. and that is primarily how we're financing the project. So we're really excited about that because it helps us to control the, the, the implementation cost.

Jody Wigington: Any utility that does it, you know, think about the benefits that fiber is going to bring to the Utilities is missing something. You'd have to live on fiber for years we have to appreciate what you can do in, in your, not only your electric, but your water, and your waste water system. It does change the utility the way it operates for the better.

Christopher Mitchell: Can you say a little bit more about that? I mean, maybe like one example

Jody Wigington: For instance, we have the same EMR system as Newport, but these, these meters in our situation, they're 15 minutes back to the server, over the fiber and some of them talk every five minutes and then we'll talk in a matter of five or 10 seconds if there's alarms. So we have integrated a lot of the AMI system, -- which basically returns over the fiber optic network. We've integrated it into the electric SCADA for real time, low control.

Christopher Mitchell: So one of the things that, as I understand it, that how that comes into play would be that if something starts to go wrong, you can fix it at a much lower cost because you don't have to enroll as many trucks or get as many people called in and things like that. I mean, this is, this is ultimately a mean among saves a lot of money. You know, a lot of ways I'm sure, but one of those is labor.

Jody Wigington: I guess one meter reader left and a w, m a way to track it is about 6,000 truck rolls a year that we don't make that we'll use to make ancillary benefits.

Christopher Mitchell: So the big question is how will we know that this was a, was a good investment? yeah. And I'm, I'm curious if we look out 10 years, you know, what, what will you be looking back and saying, wow, I'm, I'm, you know, I'm so glad that, that happened?

Sharon Kyser: For us, for each utilities. We believe that this investment is going to be smart in any of that. So we look at the opportunities that broadband opens up for our citizens and for our communities, anywhere from better education, better healthcare, a better job opportunities, economic development opportunities. We have businesses now that we have one business that has recently moved in and primarily because of the availability of the one gig fiber service. We have other businesses that we understand are starting to look at the areas. But, you know, fiber is just so important anymore in business expansions and so that's gonna be a real boon to our county, into our communities. So when we look back 10 years down the road, I think that what we're going to really be cognizant of is the fact that we have through this, this, this fiber investments have had provided opportunities for growth and for a sustained growth, within our community. And that's gonna mean growth in the tech space, even from just the perspective of families. Some of our families, the kids need to have to move elsewhere to try to get good job opportunities. So if we can bring industry in back into cobb county and they don't have to move out, then we're talking a stronger families. So, uh, you know, there's just so many benefits and I think 10 years down the road we're just going to look back and say, Oh yeah, this was the right thing.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well, let me ask you a slightly different take on it for Jody. You are one of very few cities in the United States where anyone in your community can get a gigabit. You know, you're soon going to be offering a hundred megabits symmetrical as the base offer prices that are a fraction of what I pay for a fraction of those speeds from a big cable company. Why wouldn't you just sit on this and tell people, if you want to come to the broadband Mecca, you have to come to Morristown. Why do you want to share it with your neighbors?

Jody Wigington: I mean, I'm in public service. I mean I have a vision for East Tennessee. This is where I grew up and I don't think people around us having broadband is a threat to us. In fact, it makes our community better from the education system to the remote access that workers have to come into the factories and you know, we have 9,000 plus manufacturing shops here and we had like 20,000 cars coming into the city today to work in these industries. So the more broadband there is a better it is for my workforce, for these plans. But even if it wasn't for that, I mean, when you're, when you're a public like this, I mean, you're about the people. We're here here for the people. We're not for profit. We're here to do the right thing. We're here to be willing to leverage investment over the years. And I worked there. There's nothing selfish about it. I think it just makes the region so, so much better over time. And I can't stress enough the vision of Newport Utilities and the city council there that made these decisions are not for the timid. And Glenn Ray, his leadership team are working hard to answer the bell and, I think they're doing the right thing. But it's not a threat. This, we're, we're more than happy to see the region become connected.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'd like to second that, particularly the leadership that Newport Utilities in the city council has shown because there was a group that came in and tried to scare people, tried to scare elected officials saying that this would be a disaster and it's scary. And, and, and really tried to -- what they did was they gave excuses to city officials that if they had concerns that could have backed down, they could've hid behind that and said, no, we're gonna, we're not gonna do anything but they're moving forward and I think that the entire community is really going to benefit from it. So I really want to thank both of you for coming on, telling us more about what's happening because like, like Jody said earlier, this is, this sort of sharing is what we need to really expand high quality Internet access. So thank you both for taking the time today.

Jody Wigington: My pleasure.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Sharon Kyser from Newport and Jody Wigington from Morristown in Tennessee. They were talking with Christopher about how the two communities are collaborating to improve connectivity in Newport. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets follow stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts: Building Local Power, the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research, subscribe to our monthly newsletter at Thank you to Arnie Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 300 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.