Electricity, water ... and high-speed internet? KUB wants to add broadband to services

Your Knoxville Utilities Board bill could soon include internet in addition to electricity, water, wastewater and natural gas.

KUB plans to offer high-speed municipal broadband as its fifth utility, a change that would boost internet access across the community and almost certainly create jobs. It could also increase rates for customers. The service would be about $65 a month.

KUB spokesperson Stephanie Midgett told Knox News that KUB has considered offering broadband since 2019 but the topic became more urgent in 2020 when the COVID-19 shutdown forced adults to work from home and children into virtual schooling.

The utility is holding a public hearing Wednesday, one step in the approval process.

If the plan is approved, all 210,000 customers receiving KUB's electricity will be able to get broadband internet with no caps on data usage. People outside of existing, private broadband service areas would be covered by the new network.

The plan is inspired by Chattanooga's municipal broadband system, touted as one of the fastest and most reliable broadband networks in America.

A decade-long study found Chattanooga's municipal broadband network created more than 9,000 jobs and resulted in $1.4 billion of new investment in the city. That same study found that 40% of new jobs in Hamilton County could be attributed to the fiber network.

"These projects more than pay for themselves," said Katie Elspeth, vice president of EPB, Chattanooga's electric utility.

The broadband proposal has been reviewed by the state comptroller but still requires approval from KUB's board and two-thirds majority support from the Knoxville City Council.

Who could get broadband?

In a survey of 400 KUB customers, 76% of respondents supported municipal broadband.

"During the pandemic, when the need for remote learning and remote work rose so quickly, the demand for high-speed internet did as well," Midgett said. "Gaps in current service became evident, especially in rural areas."

KUB plans to offer 1 gigabit per second upload and download service to all of its electricity customers.

It's fast enough internet service for five or more people to comfortably stream media, video conference or play games together online in the same household. That's faster than standard broadband.

KUB estimates building out a broadband network would cost $702 million over 10 years. Service would begin in 2022 and extend to all of KUB's territory by 2029. It would hire an estimated 200 people to build the network.

The expansion into broadband will be funded in part by rate increases for customers. KUB estimates the expansion can be funded by increasing electric rates by 3% annually from 2022-2025.

The utility estimates that after 2025, customers' electric bills would be about $10.50 more per month than they are currently. Eventually, the revenue generated by broadband service could cover future rate increases on the electric side.

KUB estimates 6,000 families with children attending Knox County Schools have no access to broadband and some 800 families have no access to internet at all, including dial-up.

Access to broadband internet service has long been an issue in rural areas where service can be unreliable and installation can be expensive.

KUB's service area extends into rural parts of Union and Grainger counties, which tend to have slower and less reliable broadband service.

KUB is inviting members of the public to talk about its plan to provide broadband internet at a public forum 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Grande Event Center on Clinton Highway. Attendees can register for the event by visiting kub.org and searching "broadband."

How would broadband work?

KUB's proposed broadband service would be available thanks to ongoing electrical grid modernization efforts. The utility has been installing fiber lines as a way to improve electrical service reliability.

"KUB is already utilizing fiber in our system," said Midgett. "The backbone of our system, our electric substations, are already connected via fiber."

The fiber optic network allows substations to "talk" to each other and identify potential outages faster. That same network can be used to provide high speed, broadband internet service.

Chattanooga's top-tier municipal broadband system used this same approach when it was installed 11 years ago — the utility built a smart grid system and piggybacked broadband service on top of it.

One study found Chattanooga's smart grid cut electrical outages in half.

"It really does start with fiber optic infrastructure," Elspeth told Knox News, adding that once the fiber optic cable is in place it is a relatively simple process to upgrade and maintain the system.

EPB has upgraded to the point where it can provide 10 gigabit service to larger customers. "We're on our third upgrade to our network right now," she said.

Customers unable to attend the public meeting can email comments to [email protected] or call 865-558-2200 to leave a recorded comment. Letters can be mailed to KUB c/o Executive Services, P.O. Box 59017, Knoxville, TN 37950-9017.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Vincent Gabrielle

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Published May 26, 2021