Athens Utilities Board to add Gig with help from EPB

EPB worker David Handley installs a last inteliruptor, a device that reroutes electric power to prevent outages, in this file photo.

After nearly 10 months of contract negotiations, construction and labor, Athens Utilities Board is ready to offer fiber-optic broadband Internet service to area businesses and industries.

AUB is leasing fiber between Athens and Ooltewah through Volunteer Energy Cooperative [VEC]. The broadband signal is coming from Chattanooga's Electric Power Board [EPB], but the Athen utility extended its lines into Ooltewah to connect with the Chattanooga system.

"We have signed all agreements with VEC and EPB," AUB General Manager Eric Newberry told the AUB board last week.

Newberry confirmed the Athens utility has finished testing and there is a steady 1 gigabyte signal purchased by AUB on the system. He said from an economic development standpoint it "is a great day" to offer an alternative to supply broadband Internet through EPB.

"We can go on up to 10 gigabytes, if necessary," Newberry said.

AUB offered its first broadband connections two years ago to HP Pelzer, which has been the utility's only customer to date. The utility has no immediate plans to offer residential broadband service, but Newberry said he has received numerous inquiries from businesses interested in redundancy and alternative broadband lines to AT&T.

AUB's plans to expand into broadband service have been ongoing for months, but without signed agreements with EPB and VEC, the news could not be announced.

Newberry first met with EPB and VEC to discuss the feasibility of the idea in November 2013; initial physical construction started in earnest with contractors on the south end of the project near July 2014.

"In the meantime we had to order and install equipment in Cleveland to collect and boost the signal to Athens and we finally made up our end of the project around the first of April so that we could begin tuning our switches and eventually testing the signal strength," Newberry said.

So far, all inclusive cost for contracts, labor (internal and contract), materials (fiber, conduit, etc.), and equipment (optical switches and amplifiers) comes to $58,258.69 expended to get AUB's physical fiber connection to EPB.

Newberry said the Board budgeted $100,000 for the fiber extension, "but we have also bought testing equipment and other appurtenances necessary to test a gig service but not necessarily directly applicable to the fiber connection work itself," he added.

J Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing and communications for EPB, said the Chattanooga utility is still staying within its own footprint in providing broadband services to end-use customers in conformity with Tennessee state restrictions on where municipalities may offer Internet and cable services.

Find out more

Businesses and industries in AUB's service area interested in learning more can call Eric Newberry at 423-745-4501. Newberry said the rates for businesses to have dedicated brooadband lines with balanced synchronous service will range from $1,500 for 20 megabit service up to $7,500 a month for the new Gig connection.

"EPB is providing wholesale Internet connectivity to the edge of our territory where Athens Utilities Board picks it up through a lease of dark fiber from Volunteer Electric," Marston said. "At this point, Athens is only offering services to commercial customers. EPB's infrastructure and service delivery remain inside our established footprint."

AUB already provides Internet service for HP Pelzer Automotive Systems in the Mt. Verd Interchange Industrial Park and is currently exploring other business accounts. Newberry said AUB will begin approaching local businesses and industries about availability of the fiber optic network.

"Some have already approached us," he added.

Newberry said even though the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has said municipalities can serve broadband customers outside their service area, the state Legislature has said it is not permissible.

"We built infrastructure within EPB's territory," Newberry said, adding AUB is leasing fiber between Athens and Ooltewah through VEC. "I'm excited because we are taking available service to a higher level in Athens."

Newberry said service is currently only available for commercial and industrial customers, adding he knows there are businesses that have a primary Internet provider but want to have a redundancy in case the primary service goes down.

"Folks will need to be patient because we will have to build out every service," Newberry said.

In addition, depending upon the request, AUB may be required to ask for Aid-In-Construction cost up front like AT&T does.

"Businesses that are already in the immediate proximity of our fiber loop will be able to be served much faster than long extensions into remoter areas," he added.

Athens Supports Municipal Broadband

While AUB has been working on connecting to EPB for months, in March Newberry asked the City of Athens to put its support behind asking the Tennessee General Assembly for some latitude in determining how to provide its citizens with broadband Internet service.

The Athens City Council approved a broadband resolution, which Newberry called "pared down version" of similar action passed in February in Cleveland.

"Basically, it's a resolution in support of municipalities and municipal utilities providing broadband service," Newberry said when speaking to the Council. "It's non-binding; you're not being exclusive to AUB by doing this."

Tennessee municipal electricity providers have had the statutory authority to offer broadband and Internet service since 1999, but only within their electric service territory. This restriction limits a municipality from providing broadband in areas without service or with inadequate service. By removing the restriction, the resolution contends, local governments and utilities would have more options to fill the service void.

The City Council voted unanimously in support of the resolution.

Legal concerns

Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission decided to allow cities like Chattanooga to offer municipal broadband beyond their normal service area. However, Tennessee's attorney general wants a federal appeals court to set aside that decision.

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery said in the filing with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the FCC had "unlawfully inserted itself between the state of Tennessee and the state's own subdivisions."

Slatery had been among several prominent Tennessee Republicans who had urged the FCC not to override a state law that blocks Chattanooga's electric utility from expanding its super-fast Internet network to surrounding areas. Other letter writers included Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and the state House and Senate speakers.

The FCC nevertheless voted 3-2 in favor of the utilities in Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina. President Barack Obama had pushed for the FCC's decision, saying the state laws stifled competition and economic development.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who voted with the majority, said at the time that some states have created "thickets of red tape designed to limit competition." The ruling was opposed by the commission's two Republican members, who argued it was outside the panel's authority, violated states' rights and undermined private enterprise.

"We are confident that our decision to pre-empt laws in two states that prevented community broadband providers from meeting the needs and demands of local consumers will withstand judicial scrutiny," FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said in an email to The Associated Press.

During last week's meeting, AUB Assistant General Manager Wayne Scarbrough said the municipal broadband bill did not get to the governor's desk, but because of support from municipalities and others, like Google, it will likely be looked at next year.

"It made a huge, positive move forward this year," Scarbrough said.