Broadband internet options are limited but growing

In the next few months the Lenoir City Utilities Board will make a big decision: whether to open up its 83-mile fiber-optic loop to residential broadband internet service.

That would give another high-speed option to thousands of people within LCUB’s service area, in Loudon and southern Knox counties. Currently, part of the area is served by AT& T, and TDS Telecom provides service in Farragut, said LCUB General Manager Shannon Littleton; but he’s not aware of other broadband providers for many LCUB customers.

For most residents of Knox and surrounding counties, access to high-speed, large-capacity internet is hit-or-miss: Customers can’t count on any one provider in all areas, and many places — especially outside urban boundaries — may not have a choice. Their options for hardwired true broadband may number one — or zero.

Broadband crucial for the 21st century

Increasingly, though, broadband access is seen as crucial for competing in the 21st century, in education, business and daily life. That’s certainly how LCUB sees it, Littleton said.

“We believe that it’s vital for our area for growth, for economic development, and the education of our children,” he said.

About three years ago LCUB installed a fiber-optic ring that passes through Turkey Creek and Cedar Bluff, down Kingston Pike and back into Loudon County to near U.S. Highway 321, Littleton said.

It was built for the utility’s own use, but LCUB already rents space on it to private companies along the route — not providing active internet service, but letting firms that use lots of data communicate among their own locations, he said. If the board chooses, however, LCUB could provide high-speed internet to about 13,000 residential and business customers within a quarter-mile of the fiber ring, Littleton said. Over the past year, the utility surveyed its potential customers and had Magellan Advisers do a feasibility study on internet service. The board has those results, but turning the fiber ring into house-to house internet would require a big capital investment, he said.

“We’re at the crossroads, if you will, on deciding if we’re going to go forward in the business,” Littleton said.

If the decision is yes, LCUB would probably copy Maryville’s municipal internet model, partnering with an established private firm, he said. Maryville ran fiber through an existing utility conduit, providing the infrastructure that Charter/Spectrum leases to serve local residents and businesses.

It would probably take LCUB six to eight months to start its service, and seven years to make it available to everyone within the utility’s territory — about 70,000 people, Littleton said.

The fiber-optic cable would offer internet speeds as fast or faster than other providers, and prices would likely be “very competitive,” somewhat under market rates, he said.

What is broadband?

“Broadband is defined as any service capable of providing 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speed,” said Jameson Zimmer, a telecom industry analyst who manages, a data aggregation company that compiles broadband industry data.

The FCC adopted that definition in 2015, several times the speed deemed “broadband” just five years earlier; and the definition is expected to change again as network capacity increases, programs require more data, and customers demand greater access, according to BroadbandNow.

Satellite internet usually isn’t considered true broadband because it has low data limits and severe lag, Zimmer said.

From 2012 to 2014, nearly 30 million people got land-based broadband access — as it was then defined — for the first time, according to the FCC. But in the wake of a 2015 order from the agency that regulated broadband like a utility, broadband reached only 13.5 million new users in the succeeding two-year span, the FCC report said.

Still, by the end of 2016, 92.3 percent of Americans had broadband access from at least one provider. That number was far lower in rural areas.

In 2015, Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board became the first utility in the country to offer high-speed internet — then, up to 200 times the national average. It did so without contracting with a private partner, and now serves more than 175,000 homes and businesses.

Even where publicly owned infrastructure exists, Tennessee law — passed in the wake of Chattanooga EPB’s internet offering — discourages cities and utilities from providing internet service on their own.

A January 2017 state study on broadband accessibility urged, “Any government response should focus on working with the private sector — both for-profit and non-profit — to fill these gaps in the manner least costly to taxpayers without expanding the role of government.”

Three months later, legislators passed the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, authorizing a grant program for local governments, private companies and utility cooperatives to provide service of at least 10 megabits per second download and 1 Mbps upload speed to areas without broadband service. Greg Mitchell, public information officer for the Tennessee Public Utility Commission, said the law was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s top legislative priorities that year.

At the time a third of rural Tennessee residents lacked broadband access, though only 2 percent of urban dwellers did, according to the state.

In February the state announced $9.8 million in broadband accessibility grants to 13 communities, though none were in Knox or adjacent counties.

What’s available?

For now, most residents in the area can buy broadband internet service only from one or two private companies — if they’re lucky.

“In practice, some of the most successful networks are actually public private partnerships where the city invests in neutral fiber or invests in new fiber, allowing private companies to ‘light’ the lines and manage the network, competing for customers over shared network,” Zimmer said.

The contracted provider may use municipal fiber between neighborhoods but run its own lines to individual houses, he said.

“These networks usually crop up in communities where an incumbent provider effectively refuses to provide service above a limited threshold,” Zimmer said.

A half-dozen major private providers offer service in Knox or surrounding counties: AT& T, Charter/Spectrum, Comcast/Xfinity, Frontier, TDS Telecom and WOW!, according to Broadband-Now’s compilation. That doesn’t count wireless and satellite services, which aren’t common in built-up areas, Zimmer said.

“Among these, Xfinity and AT& T are the most common options, with near citywide coverage,” he said. This is normal, since most houses are wired for phone and cable TV service. AT& T uses the phone line to deliver internet. Xfinity uses the coaxial TV cable network.

All the major providers are registered with the FCC; uncounted are small “cowboy” wireless providers or municipal networks that for some reason haven’t filed the required paperwork, Zimmer said. Many of the same big companies offer business services, often under a slightly different name, he said.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Jim Gaines

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Published November 28, 2018