Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 24

Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 24 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Dr. Michael Browder explains how Bristol, Tennesee built its own gigabit FTTH network. Listen to this episode here.



Lisa Gonzalez:  Hi, there, and welcome once again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, produced by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  This is Lisa Gonzalez.

For our 24th episode, we contacted Dr. Michael Browder, CEO of Bristol Tennessee Essential Services.  Earlier this month, BTES announced that it was among the growing number of municipal broadband networks that now offer 1-gig service.  We offer congrats to BTES on this achievement.  But it's actually BTES's customers who come out the winners.  Dr. Browder shares the history of the network, and talks about some of the amazing ways local schools and businesses are finding new ways to use the technology.  Let's go now to the interview, and hear more about Bristol Tennessee Essential Services.


Chris Mitchell:  This is Chris Mitchell, with Community Broadband Bits Podcast.  And I'm talking today with Dr. Browder, with Bristol Tennessee Essential Services.  Dr. Browder, thank you for coming on the show.


Dr. Michael Browder:  Thank you.


Chris:  Can you tell us a little bit about Bristol -- Bristol, Tennessee?


Dr. Browder:  Bristol Tennessee Essential Services has been a power company since 1945.  And we're owned by the city of Bristol, Tennessee.  We have an independent Board of Directors, that manages and operates the utility.  Now, we're also into Internet, telephone, and cable.  And this all began in about 2002.  We decided that we really needed to have a different communications system to operate our substations.  It had been a telephone -- through the telephone provider before.  And it was over copper wire into the stations.  And we get -- we regularly have lightning storms in the summer here.  We would have lightning storms.  Many times we would have lightning running in on the telephone wires, and knock out our communication with our substation.  Well, when you have lightning storms, that's when you really need your substations communication to work best, because that's when you need to know what else is going on and what else is happening.

So, we decided that we needed to build our own communications system.  And we opted for a fiber optic network.  Now, during that same time, we were looking at other uses of fiber optics.  And e-commerce, and so forth.  We're involved in economic development, in an assist role.  We also have a great interest in education, because of the requirements of our employees.  And so, we have a big interest in that.  And education is also a big part in economic development.  So, all of those things tie together.  And we felt like, from our staff and our board's review of those issues, that a fiber-optic network, being able to offer high-speed data services could really enhance our economic development, our education, and also our electric system operation.

Well, in the fall of 2002, while I was the Chairman of the American Public Power Association, I was attending a board meeting in the state of Oregon, and the President of the Electric Power Research Institute, who does the research for all power companies in the United States -- it's a big organization -- but the President of that organization was making a presentation there.  And he talked about that power outages had cost industry more in the previous year than power had cost industry.  And I was sitting there thinking, this is a really big number, knowing how much industry pays us for power, and we're just a small part of that group.


Chris:  Is that because of lost productivity, just unexpected damage, ...


Dr. Browder:  Yes.  Right.  And workers that are there with nothing to do.  Sometimes, the equipment -- if you have metal or plastic or glass or something that's flowing, and that sets up in the machinery, you have to tear it all down and clean it out.  And so it's really expensive for them -- from many sources like that.  So, then he also said that we had a really fast switching system, that we could, you know, upgrade in fractions of a second, that could help and could keep those -- get those customers recovered quick enough what they wouldn't have to totally shut down and start over.  So, we were operating some in fiber, and had decided to -- or were in the process of installing a network of loops that would pass all of our 19 substations, as well as --  And as a result of that, they would be going through our highly-residential areas and our business and industry areas, because our substations are located where the load is, and the load's there because -- that there are customers that are already there.

So, we had started that process.  But we hadn't figured out how to build it out to the customers.  And about the -- along about that time was when some triple-play equipment, which was available to fiber-to-the-home equipment.  A passive optical network equipment, where you don't have to have electronics all up and down the lines, but you can just have electronics at the ends.  And we began to evaluate that.  But, I'm thinking, we can't afford a system like that for this purpose.  Well, as we go back and we start looking at how we can build out these services to our locations in our area, the triple-play fiber optic to the home -- or fiber optic to the customer -- looked like it made sense.  We did some analysis of systems.  We talked to everybody that we could find to talk to in the United States, but -- that was doing any of that.  We talked to a lot of equipment dealers and so forth.  And so, we decided -- we did a business plan, and we decided to go down that road.  So, in 2002, I had said we couldn't do it.  In 2005, we were providing service to customers.  So that piece changed rapidly, in order to do it.

You know, we started it off by offering about 30 Mbps speed over the system.  And it was a BPON technology.  But -- so -- but by using the PON network, the fiber piece we looked at as future-proof.  That we could change the electronics on the end, and the fiber in between could stay the same.  And so we'd have a system that you could upgrade as time goes on without changing out everything.  Without changing out your fiber system -- and all the pieces of the fiber system.  If you only changed the electronics in your nodes and electronics at the house, you could upgrade it.  Well, within a year after we started, BPON technology came out which gave us the possibility to move up to 100 megs a second -- Mbps.  So, we did that.  And -- we didn't want to stay with a technology that was going to give us more stranded investment by us buying ONTs on the side of the house, and that sort of thing.  So -- but we didn't have to change out the ones that were there, unless more than the 30 capacity -- 30 Mbps capacity.


Chris:  Right.


Dr. Browder:  We put the 100 in.  And then, later, when the gigabit became available, well, then we changed again, so that we could have gigabit technology in.  And we -- then, we went back and we laid another piece over out backbone system, that was a 10-gigE system, so that we could provide gigabit services to everybody.  So, just recently, we have completed the systems, so that everybody -- every customer -- of ours -- every electric customer of ours -- has gigabit available to their location.  Now, they -- all we have to do is run it from the street to the house -- or, that last 50 yards or whatever -- to get it there, and put the electronics on the house, and they've got it.  So, we've got it completely built out, to where we can do that.  And that is a big piece.

We now have all of the schools in our area -- either have 100 Mbps or a gigabit, and it's their option.  The gigabit being 1,000 megabits.  So, it's -- they either have 100 or 1,000 megabits available.  And all of the schools are using one or the other of those.  And as they need to, they can go from the 100 megs to a gig.  And all they have to do is call us.  We'll make a -- we may have to change the electronics on the side of their building.  Or we may not.  Depending on which group we installed there originally.  But if we have to change the electronics on the side of the building, that's just an hour's job, and so we get it done, and --


Chris:  Do the schools actually use that mostly to communicate with each other, within the district, or are they actually connecting across the Internet at those very fast speeds as well?


Dr. Browder:  They're doing both.  As a matter of fact, I was -- we have a school that's out in the edge of the Appalachian Mountains -- it's actually the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and you can see the Appalachian Trail from that school.  And they have that information in.  And they were telling us about being able to visit the Egyptian pyramids.  And they actually have a guide, on-site, at the pyramids, talking directly to the children in the class.  So they were -- it was like they were there.  And then we also have -- they've been able to do Smithsonian Institute visits, and have guides there.  And it's like that they're really there, and going on a tour with a real live guide that's there.  And you can't do that without some really high-speed data link.  So, that's a piece.

And also are able to, if they have, you know, one, or two, or six children in a school that's interested in a subject that's being taught somewhere else, they can do that over this system also.  And then, they can work on the, like, math problems, or spelling problems, or those kind of things, over the Internet, from a location, and a site, and an app.  And they can do that.  And so, it's just amazing what all they can do, and how that they can diversify that education processes by having this really high-speed information available at the time.

And so you can have children in the class that are working on some app or some device, and working on a lot of different projects at the same time.  So then, you're able to work children at the limit of what they're capable of doing, instead of teaching to the middle of the class, where some people don't understand what you're talking about, and some people are bored to death.  This way, you can individualize to those children as they're doing it.


Chris:  What is the community benefitting, other than these obvious, incredible technological capacity of the schools?  What else have you seen?  Are people paying lower prices?  Have you seen more jobs in the community?  How has the network helped?


Dr. Browder:  Well, when we were starting out -- in 2006, was the first time that we had the triple-play services available -- all three of them available.  And we had a package that was $99.75.  And it included 1.5 megabits of service.  It included 100 minutes of long-distance telephone.  And about 80 channels of TV.  Now, that "same" package is $109.  it's gone up $10.  But the content of the cable had gone up more than $10 during that period of time.  So we've only changed the price, as to the price of content.  But, instead of 1.5 Mbps, we have 30 Mbps.  Instead of 100 minutes of long-distance, we have unlimited long-distance.  And then we've also added caller-ID to the list.  And -- so, we've been able to -- without raising prices -- we've been able to drastically increase availability of these high speeds.

And one of the things that we were talking about, Chris, in the beginning was -- if we could offer this data services and Internet access and so forth as fast and as cheap as any place in the county, then we could be as competitive in any of these e-commerce services as any place in the country.  And, you know, I've lived in northeast Tennessee 40 years, and this is a wonderful place to live.  I mean, it's got four seasons.  It's got the Appalachian Mountains.  It's got lakes, and --  I mean, it's just a wonderful place to live.  And so, if you can do these kind of services, from here, you can have the best of all worlds.  And that's what we're finding.  A lot of people are getting out of school and having to move somewhere else for data jobs.  Now, they can have really high-speed data service.  So they can do those kind of jobs here.  And it's as if they were wherever.

And to give you a little bit of -- idea about how well that you can handle those jobs from a distance, one time, we were -- when we were buying -- well, we were buying phone service, to get the phone system out to other places and do everything from where we are, and we lost a circuit to the phone system.  And we were trying to find out why we had lost it, from the supplier that was giving it to us.  Well, the people that we bought our telephone switch -- or class-5 telephone switch -- from, one of their engineers, in Australia, after-hours with us -- it was after-hours with use -- told us that the people supplying this service had made some changes in Kansas City.  And told us what the changes were.  And when they finally found the person that had made the changes, and got him back to the job, and he fixed it back, we made it work.  But I thought -- I was really impressed that somebody from Australia was able to get into our system and do this.  And we have people that do different things with us -- you know, from south Alabama; from Plano, Texas; from lots of places that do work with us -- that can get into our system and do this.  So, when you see that done, you know how much that people can do from one place to the other.

As a matter of fact, one of our employees had a sideline of drag racing.  And he was able to do some work for our customer while he was staged in a drag thing.  Took his laptop, and got out on it with a high-speed data system, and was able to fix these things while he was in his dragster, waiting to run down the strip.  So, it's amazing what you can do from multiple places, or any place.  Or people can work together and be thousands of miles apart.  So, these are just things, that this gives us opportunities.  And we are as economical and as fast as any place, now.  So, --

We have a newspaper-printing facility here that's a state-of-the-art facility, that they print seven newspapers from.  And they've been in the business for several years and never had an outage.  And one of the things that they had said -- the reason that they located here was because of the high-speed data, and the reliability of our electric system.  And our data system has been reliable.  They've never missed a printing in that facility since they've been there, because of our data services or our electric services.

And then, there was a consulting firm that was doing some work for TVA, that was prequalifying some data center sites.  We were chosen as one of those.  And there again, two major components of that was the high-speed data, and redundancy in that, and the reliability of the electric system.


Chris:  It's a testament to what can happen when a local government -- when the community itself -- really controls its own destiny.  So, we're thrilled to hear about your success stories.  And we really what to thank you for coming on the show, and telling us exactly how you went about building this network.


Dr. Browder:  Thank you, Chris.  We find that it gets more and more successful every day.  It's a lot of work.  And it takes some planning, and it takes some expertise.  But we have grown most of our expertise internally.  Taken some really bright people and got them some training and education.  And they're eager and interested.  And they're eager and interested on behalf of their community.  And, just like you said, it is local people seeing after local people.


Chris:  Well, great!  Thank you.  We wish you continued success.  And we'll look forward to talking to you again in the future, maybe when you're offering 10 gigs to every home, or 40 gigs to every home.  I'm sure it won't be that long into the future.


Dr. Browder:  The way things are changing, you're right, it probably won't be.  But I enjoyed spending this time with you.  And we'd be glad to talk again.


Chris:  All right.  Take care.


Dr. Browder:  Thank you, Chris.


Chris:  Thank you.


Lisa:  That was Christopher and Dr. Michael Browder, from Bristol Tennessee Essential Services.  We look forward to future developments, as this reliable network continues to stay on the cutting edge.  And we'll be sure to share information with you.  You can learn more about BTES, and the many services they offer, at their website, .  And don't forget to visit and search for "BTES" -- B-T-E-S.  Or "Bristol-Tennessee."  If you have any questions or comments, please send us a note.  E-mail us at .  Our handle on Twitter is @communitynets .  This show was released on December 4th, 2012.  And we want to thank the mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.  The song is called, "Bodacious."