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VOL. 38 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 21, 2014

More businesses using high-speed connections

By Hollie Deese

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Connected Tennessee hopes to see broadband adoption and use continue to rise among Tennessee businesses, which have $31 billion in annual online sales.

The latest statewide research indicates 76 percent of state businesses in Tennessee are connected to broadband, compared to 55 percent in 2007.

“Even traditionally ‘low-tech’ businesses like childcare or landscaping services can benefit from broadband by maintaining an informational website or mobile app, allowing electronic billing and account management or marketing their goods or services electronically,” says Jennifer Cobb, public relations specialist with Connected Tennessee, a non-profit organization with the goal of putting technology in the hands of the people, regardless of income or location.

“In many instances, these businesses may already have an online presence or reputation (Angie’s List, Yelp, etc.), whether they realize it or not,” she adds.

Nashville’s infrastructure, low disaster activity and low energy costs make it a desirable place to house a data center. Bryan Huddleston, president and CEO of the Nashville Technology Council, says there are more than 32 in the region.

“Nashville is a very bandwidth-rich community,” Huddleston says. “That is attractive to tech startups, data centers, and individual technology talent, because they are the ones who really want that high-speed Internet. And all but a few of the households across Davidson and the bordering counties have access to high-speed Internet. And although we have these assets, and we need to continue to capitalize and invest in them, something we need to do is better drive adoption and awareness about high-speed bandwidth in the Nashville area.”

Nashville’s growing reputation as a technology hub presents both challenges and opportunities moving ahead.

“While Nashville is blessed with a robust broadband infrastructure and a solid middle-mile and backhaul network across a variety of carriers, expansion among existing tech firms and new firms relocating to the area will place increased demands on the local network, as it exists today,” Cobb says.

“This means it will be increasingly more important for local, regional and state policy makers to continue to monitor the local broadband infrastructure landscape and to ensure that appropriate steps are taken to enable continued network growth and expansion.

“Fortunately, an area like Nashville, where broadband and technology growth is trending upward, presents a safer investment for telecommunications carriers when determining where to allocate their network upgrade and expansion dollars,’’ she adds.

Alex Curtis, director of Creators’ Freedom Project in Nashville, says there is certainly room for improvement.

“I would love to have higher-speed bandwidth, and I think there is great potential for those kinds of things to develop here,” Curtis adds.

Gig City – it’s not Nashville

A recent article in The New York Times highlights the benefits of nearby Chattanooga – “Gig City” – is having with the country’s fastest and most ubiquitous broadband service, which runs more than 100 times faster than the national average, a perk that offers entrepreneurs greater possibilities, like two-way communication as clear and sharp as if you were in the same room.

“It is a selling point for people looking for jobs in certain areas, knowing they have the capacity to build their own business there or work remotely,” Curtis says.

“Great businesses are coming to Chattanooga because of the bandwidth. Being able to have that kind of connection changes the game.

“It is almost more exciting that we can’t understand what the possibilities are in bandwidth, because someone is going to come up with the next innovation just because they have this giant pipe to connect with.”

Connected Tennessee stats show 92.71 percent of state households can access broadband at FCC target speeds or better, while 82 percent can access fixed broadband service at download speeds of at least 100 MB download, an increase of 40.5 percentage points in two years.

Three providers in Tennessee are advertising 1 GB service packages to all customers in their service territory.

Plus, the FCC just committed $26.2 million in combined subsidies to bring 4 MB downstream and 1MB upstream broadband Internet service to 34,485 new locations across Tennessee – the second-highest total award amount in the nation during this funding cycle.

“Broadband speeds will become increasingly important in the future as more residents and businesses move toward more interactive and streaming applications,” Cobb explains.

Can Nashville handle it?

Comcast is one Internet service provider that is very aware of the technology growth in Nashville.

“We are obviously very focused on making sure that Nashville has the broadband infrastructure to support the current technology industry, but also what arises in the future in terms of new businesses coming in expanding and new startups,” says Andy Macke, vice president of external affairs for Comcast.

“Regardless of what business you’re in, we certainly understand that you have to have Internet as a core piece of that.”

It isn’t always smooth sailing.

Kailey Faber of The Skillery says when she was setting up the now-defunct creative co-working space, CoLab, in downtown four years ago, NES and Comcast were both accommodating. But, there were issues.

“It was pretty quick in general to get set up initially,” she says. “I will say for businesses that need a fiber connection, it’s a lot more difficult. We looked into it and the price difference is huge, and it couldn’t serve to my location with CoLab.”

NES plays key role

In an email, NES officials say they are affected by the growth of local bandwidth through pole attachments, as broadband companies need NES poles to provide service to their customers.

“Basically, the impact on NES is additional workload,” wrote Laurie Parker, NES corporate communications officer, via email. “Engineers must analyze the poles to ensure proper clearance and strength to accommodate the additional attachments. Broadband companies are charged a pole attachment fee so that NES can recover the cost of those expenses.”

Parker says the requesting company provides them with some information, but NES completes the analysis of the poles. And while they attempt to complete requests as quickly as possible, several factors come into play, including incomplete or inaccurate information by the requestor.

“Many communication companies install their fiber on major roadways,” she wrote. “Typically, the NES poles on these routes are already heavily loaded with NES equipment and communication cables. Analyzing an application along one of these routes will usually be more complex and may result in a resubmittal for an alternative route to avoid costly construction, usually in the form of pole replacements.”

In addition, Parker says applications to attach to a small number of poles will be completed more quickly than applications to attach to a large number of poles, and if construction upgrades are required, emergency work takes priority and can slow down the schedule.

“We offer the requester the option of using an NES-approved contractor to complete the work if they want full control of the construction schedule.”

Macke says Comcast would prefer not to be tied to NES contractors.

“Our standpoint is that the best of all worlds would be if you have somewhat of a control over your own destiny,” he says. “If we have a third-party contractor who was approved by NES that could do that work, then their allocation of manpower could ebb and flow based on our connectivity.

“For us, if we sign up a business customer today, either a small business wanting to open up a new storefront facility or expand what they have, we try to get that installed no later than 90 days. And certainly, if you apply for a permit you get a turnaround time of 10 days, and if there is construction required, say that’s another 30 days, then you should be well within your 90-day window.

“But if you are 120 days getting a permit, by the time you’re ready to serve the customer they have forgotten that they even signed up for service and have decided to go in a different direction,’’ Macke adds. “So you can see how that is definitely a pressure point in the whole process.”

Overall, business owners like May say Nashville has a solid base of talent and support that is only going to keep perpetuating, as long as everyone remains on board.

“We have got to have government and private business and small business involved in that effort, and everybody has to put some energy in and we will all reap benefits, but it is not a short-term process,” May says. “It is definitely a longer-term investment that will have some big payouts in the next 10 or 15 years. Everybody has to give a little bit to get a lot back.”

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