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VOL. 10 | NO. 28 | Saturday, July 8, 2017

Need For Speed

Broadband growth in rural areas critical for education, economic growth

By Michael Waddell

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Access to high-speed broadband is a growing issue in Tennessee as technological advances in business and education become more digitally based. For the rural areas around Memphis and across the state, it is becoming a matter of disparity both on the workforce-training front and in classrooms. And the two are inextricably linked.

Even for rural communities that have access to broadband for internet use there are issues of speed, putting citizens and businesses in those communities at a disadvantage to urban areas like Memphis where broadband at high speeds is more readily available for the masses.

“Broadband is increasingly thought of as belonging to that category of critical infrastructure,” said Alan Morse, president of Ritter Communications, which provides high-speed broadband and fiber in Millington as well as Tipton and Haywood counties.

Companies like Ritter and organizations like the Tennessee Telecommunications Association (TTA) are investing heavily in rural broadband infrastructure, with more funding needed to make way for coverage in all areas of the state.

TTA is a trade association that represents 21 local telecoms and independent telephone companies across the state that serve predominantly rural areas, which comprise 30 percent of the state’s total landmass. Bringing high-speed broadband to non-urban areas is a priority.

“Any way you can get high-speed service to an area, particularly in a rural area, it is really good for the economy, for consumers,” said Levoy Knowles, TTA executive director. “Our members have been very conscious of that fact, and over the next three years (2017 to 2019), the TTA – all of its members collectively – are going to spend more than a quarter of $1 billion in these rural areas to bring higher-speed service to areas that either may not have it or it may need to be upgraded.”

He estimates that 90 percent or more of rural areas covered by TTA’s members will have access over the next three years.

Back the 1940s and 1950s, the larger telecom companies did not want to serve rural areas.

“Small telephone companies and cooperatives were formed in order to serve those pockets of areas that either didn’t have service or didn’t have adequate service,” Knowles said. “Move forward 60-plus years, and we’re looking at the same thing now with broadband. There’s not adequate broadband for a lot of the areas we serve.”

LEVOY KNOWLES

Ritter Communications is an example of the efforts and progress being made to provide service to areas around Memphis so they can have the same, or similar, access that Memphis and other urban areas enjoy.

Ritter purchased Millington Telephone Co. and Millington CATV in 2012, and during the five years in which Ritter has operated in West Tennessee, the company has invested more than $8 million in new network infrastructure to increase capacity and improve internet speeds.

Ritter’s investments in West Tennessee include construction of Fiber to the Home (FTTH) in new residential developments, and fiber to the premise (FTTP) for new business locations, which allows customers to receive the highest speeds available.

About 80 percent of locations in Ritter’s network in West Tennessee are capable of receiving 100 megabits per second (Mbps) and 90 percent of locations have at least 10 Mbps of available service.

Those speeds are 12 times faster than the maximum available just five years ago.

“Over the last five years, in particular, we’ve seen an explosion of video carried over the internet, whether it’s YouTube, Snapchat, FaceTime, cell phones – any manner of internet video, including streaming video, or using services like Netflix as an alternative to traditional cable TV,” Morse said. “So we’ve seen the demand for internet explode exponentially.”

Usage typically spikes each holiday season between early November and January. Last year on Ritter’s system, internet usage increased by more than 400 percent compared to December 2015.

“The difficulty in providing internet in rural America has to do with the density of the customer base,” Morse said. “In an urban area, a company like ours can spend $100,000 putting in a mile of optic cable in a neighborhood or to serve the business community, and in that mile we might have the opportunity to serve 60 to 100 customers. In a rural area, that same mile of fiber might only serve 12 customers.”

So it is harder for Ritter to justify the investment and there is a longer payback period.

Morse points out that there are vast territories locally that still need to be covered.

“We are constantly making investments in the telephone network and trying to get fiber deeper into the network to improve speeds, as well as making upgrades to our coaxial network,” he said.

When Ritter purchased Millington Telephone in 2012, the network had a maximum total capacity of 2 gigabits per second (Gbps) shared among all customers. Usage is now peaking at 18 Gbps. The capacity enhancements Ritter has made are allowing customers to consume nine times more internet than was available to them five years ago.

Ritter converted its cable TV system to an all-digital platform, which freed up network capacity and in turn allowed the company to offer higher internet speeds.

Tipton-Rosemark Academy, a pre-K through 12th grade “One-to-One” school in Millington, is located very close to the Tipton County line in a decidedly rural area. Every student there has a MacBook or iPad computer.

“One of the greatest challenges we faced in our school was to have enough broadband to handle the demand of 700 computers in one site,” said John Scott, head of schools at Tipton-Rosemark. “We were operating on a very small amount of broadband, less than 5 megabits. Ritter provided us with enough broadband to be able to operate our whole system with very little interruption.”

Ritter provides Rosemark with a 500 Mbps download/200 Mbps upload fiber connection, and Scott believes the school could not function as it does without that quality of broadband service.

Students also use broadband access at home to complete assignments.

“We’re even making some other changes between now and fall in getting some additional services available for cable TV because we have the infrastructure here at the school,” Scott said.

Ritter was also involved in bringing 1,800 laptops into the local high school system.

THE BUSINESS OF ACCESS

Government support mechanisms have helped fund development and improvements to broadband infrastructure.

“Continued support is vital to our ability to improve and maintain our network moving forward and ensure our primarily rural communities and customers receive internet services comparable to those in major metro areas,” Morse said.

In May, the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors approved a $300 million strategic fiber initiative that will expand TVA’s fiber capacity and improve the reliability and resiliency of the transmission system. The network expansion will help meet the power system’s growing need for bandwidth as well as accommodate the integration of new, distributed energy resources.

“I’m very encouraged to hear about that investment by TVA,” Morse said. “It will be good for Tennessee, and we would hope to be able to either partner with them or partner with other electric cooperatives that are part of TVA to take advantage of that.”

The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act approved by the state Legislature in March offers $45 million over three years to improve access to broadband service in rural areas through grants and tax credits to private companies. That includes $30 million to encourage expansion to unserved homes and businesses and $15 million in tax credits to purchase broadband equipment for expansion in economically challenged counties.

The measure also allows electric cooperatives to start offering retail broadband either through their own efforts or by partnering with communications companies. The education prong of the plan would use local libraries to help residents improve digital skills and learn more about the benefits of broadband.

Laptops in those libraries will enable students to take the Career Readiness Certificate test, which some industries look to as a benchmark as part of their hiring practices, according to Duane Lavery, president and CEO of HTL Advantage and economic developer for Haywood, Tipton and Lauderdale counties in West Tennessee.

“They understand that if you expand broadband usage, you’re going to have more qualified applicants for your local industry, and they’re going to be more successful down the road,” Lavery said.

Companies considering expansion or relocation once asked about the availability of the four basic utilities when they inquired about a prospective property: electric, water, sewer and gas service, Lavery said. That list has grown. He now considers telecommunications to be the “fifth utility” as broadband availability has become an important piece of the puzzle.

“I can say that more and more proposals that I get from potential clients have a telecommunications aspect to it,” he said.

The state of Tennessee has invested at least $106 million in infrastructure and will be devoting more in the future to lure a major manufacturer and possibly related supply and service businesses that would accompany it to the Memphis Regional Megasite in Haywood County.

In addition to a solar farm that already hooks into the Chickasaw Electric Cooperative and many other amenities for prospective industries, the megasite counts fiber optics as a primary offering.

“The more improved telecommunications becomes, the better business and industry can operate,” Lavery said. “If we have a strong broadband internet backbone through our rural areas, it does make us as competitive with more urban areas.”

Ritter has fiber infrastructure in place and can provide up to 10 Gbps service to the regional megasite. The availability of high-speed internet at the site is a marketing opportunity for HTL Advantage.

“One thing that is clear to us is that rural customers want the same services that urban customers get, to a large extent,” Morse said. “Just because people aren’t living in the city doesn’t mean they’re willing to settle for lesser service.”

He cites sometimes higher reliance on broadband in rural areas for contacting emergency services over the internet, working from home, and for at-home learning.

Ritter also recently expanded its fiber network to include small towns in Arkansas like Mountain Home, Russellville, Cabot, Conway, Batesville and Jacksonville.

“We’ll be looking to do a similar expansion in West Tennessee in future years,” Morse said.

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