Tenn. Power Co-op and ISP Use New State Law to Add Broadband (Podcast)

New rules in Tennessee allow utility co-ops more leeway in providing internet service to their customers. A power co-op joins forces with an existing internet-service provider to expand broadband access and lay the infrastructure for a power “smart grid.”

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Sixty-nine percent of the nation’s firefighters are volunteers.  Broadband is as important as traditional equipment and training for modern volunteers.

Last month, Middle Tennessee Electric co-op and United Communications announced a partnership that guarantees fire stations – and residents – all the broadband they need.

“Before United came to save us, the fire station had a 4G LTE cellular hotspot in the bay where the trucks are parked,” says Fire Lieutenant Fritz Haimberger of the Peytonsville Volunteer Fire Department. “Internet speed was great when no one was using it. But once you have four or five devices connecting to it, its usefulness was limited.”

Now they have gigabit speed that will lead to significant safety and communication improvements.

Peytonsville is a small, unincorporated community in a rural part of southern Williamson County. Williamson, which also contains the well-heeled suburban cities of Franklin and Brentwood, is officially part of the Nashville metro area. But small communities on the fringes of more affluent and populous areas don’t necessarily benefit from their neighbors’ broadband access. And that makes a difference to fire fighters.

There are more than 300 volunteer firefighters in Williamson County alone. Gigabit broadband means the volunteer force will have significant advantages. Reports are created and processed faster and more accurately. In a world in which seconds mean the difference between life and death, the web-based dispatch application means firefighters and EMTs are on the trucks faster and with more accurate data.

Broadband can also help recruit and retrain volunteers. “Most volunteers have full-time or part time jobs,” Lt. Haimberger says. “Before we had broadband, it was hard to get volunteers to work shifts because internet access was so miserable people couldn’t do work in the hours they had between calls. We are on a drive to have a thousand volunteers. Having broadband access will be a factor in reaching that goal.”

Grab Your Partner, Do-Si-Do

For more than 10 years, members of the power co-op have been asking for broadband service. It’s gone from something people want to something people need.

An opportunity arose for the Middle Tennessee Power co-op when state law changed last year giving utility cooperatives more leeway in providing broadband.

“When the door of opportunity opened with state law change, we evaluated our options,” says Middle Tennessee Electric President and CEO Chris Jones. “We were fortunate to have in our own backyard a company (United Communications) doing innovative things to get broadband deployed.”

This is the first co-op/private company partnership in the state to offer broadband services.

The electric co-op has 225,000 residential and business members in Williamson, Wilson, Rutherford, and Cannon counties. United Communications has 1,000 miles of fiber that covers a service area that is more sparsely populated than the service area of Middle Tennessee Electric. United reaches portions of Williamson, Marshall, Bedford, Franklin, and Rutherford counties.

The power co-op and private communications company found a unique way to work together. Other utilities have built out their own broadband networks to add internet service. That’s the taken in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Lafayette, Louisiana; and by other co-ops in Missouri and Michigan. Instead of building its own network, Middle Tennessee Electric bought a controlling interest in United Communications.

By tapping into an existing network, Middle Tennessee Electric immediately gains access to United’s fiber without having to build their own system. The power company can use the fiber to create a smart grid to manage their electrical distribution system. United can simultaneously start bringing their power customers on line as broadband users. Also, there may be federal and state grants that can underwrite the cost for the smart grid.

There are several important lessons that co-ops and municipalities can learn from the partnership.

Communities have found it effective to partner with companies innovative in their selection of technologies, but also in their business practices. “We had been aware that United Communications was aggressively deploying broadband, and they believed fiber was the way to go,” says Jones.

William Bradford, president and CEO of United Communications, says “We also saw the value in wireless, so we acquired a fixed wireless provider that was in our service area. Wireless has the potential of being deployed quickly and there are areas better suited to the technology.”

Partnering with the power cooperative was the logical next step. “We can take what we’re doing in small pockets of Middle Tennessee and now address the broadband needs of more people,” Bradford says.

Over the years United took thousands of calls, many of those from Middle Tennessee Electric members. “Our partnership is hitting the ground running. We have a fiber backbone within our territory, as well as a quality customer service operation,” Bradford says. “Serving the needs of rural America is in our respective organizations’ DNA.”

Over the years United took thousands of calls, many of those from Middle Tennessee Electric members. “Our partnership is hitting the ground running. We have a fiber backbone within our territory, as well as a quality customer service operation,” Bradford says. “Serving the needs of rural America is in our respective organizations’ DNA.”

Full or partial ownership of the broadband technology gives communities assurances of controlling the quality, pricing, and reliability.  But ultimately, how well the technology works together depends on people. Forming a mutually beneficial partnership starts with people getting in a room and talking, Bradford says.

“I’m convinced a lot of people don’t initiate a conversation because they can’t see an apparent path toward a workable relationship,” Bradford says. “You can’t know what makes sense until you start whiteboarding it out. When we met with Middle Tennessee, we talked through a whole lot of options before we finally came up with one that worked.”

 

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