Fiber-optic frenzy

There is a small, unassuming building off Amni-cola Highway behind the post office that's easy to miss unless someone is specifically looking for it. The little structure has only two offices and a storage room, but is surrounded by hundreds of empty parking spaces most of the day.

"It's calm right now, but in the morning it's a madhouse in here," said Jim Lansford, general of the growing army that installs fiber-optic cable in homes all over Chattanooga.

He works for a little-known company, Adesta, that has been quietly helping EPB roll out fiber-optic Internet service to more than 17,000 Chattanoogans since the service became available last year.

Adesta is responsible for 80 percent of EPB's fiber-to-the-home installations, according to Lansford, project manager for Adesta. EPB itself performs the remaining 20 percent, as well as trouble calls.

Beginning in June 2009, Adesta ramped up from a one-man office to more than 120 locally hired technicians, and now performs an average of 500 installations per week, or about 100 every day, he said.

Installers concentrate on blocs of 500-600 homes at a time that are served by "cabinets," a box where high-capacity fiber runs in, and many other cables run out toward individual residences.

"When I moved here last year, I was the only one here," Lansford said.

He started hiring four to five installers per week, in an effort to keep up with demand.

"We thought we'd have 40 to 50 techs when we first started," he said, "but now we're up to 123."

In addition to servicing homes and businesses, EPB and Adesta have begun rolling out service to apartments as well, he said, addressing a key hole in their service. The reason for the delay, he said, is that installers have to negotiate with the property owners to make the changes to their property before they can offer the service to renters.

The installation process typically consists of three steps for each home or apartment. First, a bucket truck splices the fiber optic cable up the nearest utility pole, and "drops" it from there to the residence.

A second technician then comes and hooks the cable up to an optical network terminal on the side of the building. This box converts the optical signal into one that can be sent through ordinary coaxial cable.

Finally, the "inside installer" arrives to run cable throughout the home, under orders to replace old coaxial cable when necessary, and run cable inside walls and through outlets rather than drilling holes in the floor, according to Kade Abed, assistant vice president of field operations for EPB.

Abed said he trains EPB's 30 installers and Adesta's personnel to do exactly what the customer wants, and avoid things like running cable through floors, because "I wouldn't want that done in my home," he said.

Employees can each only finish about two inside installations per day, because Abed said he tells them to take their time and do it right.

"It takes us a little more time, but our customers are pretty much ecstatic when we walk away," Abed said.

From a control room in EPB, Abed manages every call that goes out, and knows the location of EPB and Adesta trucks at all times. A computer assigns work based on efficiency, and trouble calls are automatically routed to the nearest available unit.

"EPB has stepped up in a big way," said Dan Himes, business development director for Adesta. "We do fiber to the home projects in areas across the country, and there's no other project like it in the country."

Merlin Wittenberg, a retired IT professional, has worked with wires and technology all his life and said that he was impressed with Adesta's installation.

"I was blown away," he said. "I had a DVD player that wasn't playing through the TV, and they even spent 10 or 15 minutes trying to hook that up. That wasn't part of their job description."

But what customers really want, Lansford said, aside from a trouble-free installation and uninterrupted, speedy service, is a yard sign that tells neighbors, "We've got it!"

"If we forget to put the sign up, we'll always get a call from EPB saying, 'a customer called and they want their sign.'"

Adesta, which already had laid over 2 million miles of fiber in more than 140 U.S. markets before working with EPB, was recently purchased by G4S, a British company that claims to be the second largest private employer in the world with a 595,000-strong work force across more than 110 countries.