Broadband providers battle over service in Bradley County

Broadband providers battle over service in Bradley County

Cleveland businesses want faster Internet

December 12th, 2015 by Dave Flessner in Local Regional News

Municipal broadband providers

* EPB in Chattanooga

* Clarksville Department of Electricity

* Tullahoma Utilities

* Jackson Energy Authority

* Morristown Utility Systems

* Bristol Tennessee Essential Services

* Pulaski Electric System in Pulaski

David Snyder, president of RevTel

David Snyder, president of RevTel

Photo by Logan Foll /Times Free Press.

Ken Webb, Cleveland Utilities

Ken Webb, Cleveland Utilities

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Clark Campbell opened a social work space known as Initio Labs this summer in downtown Cleveland to house business startups looking for office space and Internet service.

But Campbell, who also owns Social Lion LLC, said the Internet connections from his carrier, Charter Communications, slowed to only a fraction of the promised levels on at least five days this fall. That forced him to hire a backup business for Internet service. It also threatened the operations of a number of his tenants.

"We have multiple businesses in downtown Cleveland that compete with Chattanooga, but I had to move my family to Ooltewah this year in order to have adequate Internet service," Campbell told the Cleveland/Bradley County Chamber of Commerce on Friday. "We will consider moving our business to Hamilton County if the high-speed Internet problem is not solved in the next 12 months because we just can't compete with the speed, reliability and customer service of EPB in Chattanooga."

Representatives of Charter Communications and AT&T told Chamber members they are improving their service and already offer the option of high-speed web connections for most Cleveland businesses. Charter estimates 75 percent of businesses in Bradley County have broadband service, and the phone company has seven fiber-lit buildings in Cleveland that soon will have the capability of gigabit-per-second Internet service.

But Internet speeds have become more vital for everything from education to medicine, and many Cleveland business owners complained Friday their service isn't adequate for 21st-century communication needs.

"I don't care who provides it, but it is essential that we have faster broadband," said John Hatfield, director of sales for Voicopia Communications in Cleveland.

The city-owned electricity provider, Cleveland Utilities, is looking at adding broadband telecommunications services next year — potentially in partnership with Chattanooga's EPB, one of seven city-owned electric utilities in Tennessee that also provide telecommunications services.

But at Friday's forum, private telephone and cable companies objected to such government-owned utilities getting in their business.

"The government goal coming from the federal government is 'Obamanet,'" said David Snyder, president of RevTEL, a competitive local exchange carrier that provides high-speed fiber Internet in downtown Dayton, Tenn., and other telecommunications services in the region.

"I desperately want to expand my broadband service, and I love competing with other telecom companies. But I don't think it is fair for me and other private companies to have to compete with our own government that taxes and regulates us."

If municipalities expand into broadband, "no private investor is going to want to spend to compete against government," Snyder said. "Are we a community about free enterprise or are we a community about big government solutions?"

Tennessee law says municipal utilities may offer broadband only inside the designated electricity service territories set by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Federal Communications voted 3-2 earlier this year to overturn Tennessee's law and allow municipal electric utilities to offer broadband services outside their power service territories.

The state appealed that ruling, and the issue is likely to be tied up in court for months or years.

Meanwhile, state Reps. Dan Howell and Kevin Brooks, both Cleveland Republicans, have sponsored legislation that would allow municipal utilities to offer broadband services outside their territories if invited by the local utility.

"We don't want a government monopoly; we want more competition and better service," Howell said.

Cleveland Utilities is studying a $45 million plan to create its own telecommunications network in Bradley County, and is talking with EPB in Chattanooga about possible links if the state ban is lifted.

CU has studied the potential of offering telephone, Internet and video services since 2003, "because we want to be careful and make sure we have a plan that is workable and will help our citizens," utility President Ken Webb said.

Despite the success of municipal telecom providers in Chattanooga and a half dozen other Tennessee cities, some ventures have failed.

Memphis Light Gas & Electric lost $28 million in a failed telecom venture more than a decade ago, and the city of Covington gave up on its telecom venture and sold its phone and Internet business to Comcast.

Snyder said much of Chattanooga's success was built from more than $111 million of federal stimulus money given the utility in 2010 for its fiber optic network and smart grid.

But EPB President Harold DePriest said the utility's fiber optic network has more than paid for itself. A study by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga finance department estimates EPB's fiber optic system helped in the recruitment of more than 2,800 jobs and up to $1.3 billion of new investment.

"We've built a communications system for tomorrow that can help our region to grow," DePriest said.

Dr. Terry Forshee, president of Cherokee Pharmacy stores in Cleveland and Dalton, is eager for that growth. He said he can't get broadband at his South Bradley County home near Red Clay State Park.

"Charter Communications has had 27 years to bring cable down to me, but I'm still three miles away from service," he said. "I'm waiting, and I call every month to both Charter and AT&T, but I can't get anyone to come to my residence."

Forshee said he is trying to build his obesity education business, Take Charge, into a national company. But that's hard to do when he can't get high-speed Internet service at home.

Sandy Wallis lives in northern Bradley County, less than a quarter-mile from where Charter Communications and AT&T lines end.

"I've lived in my house for 30 years waiting on Charter and AT&T, and I've had to send my kids into town to do their homework (where broadband is available)," she told the Chamber gathering. "We need better service."

E-mail Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.


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