EET&D – A recent study shows Chattanooga’s community-wide fiber optic network and smart grid produced $2.69 billion in community benefit during the first 10 years since EPB built it. What kind of infrastructure has EPB deployed and why?
DW – We started with the idea of deploying an advanced, highly automated, self-healing smart grid distribution system. As a municipal utility with a mission to enhance the quality of life for the people of the Chattanooga area, we knew that this kind of smart infrastructure would yield tremendous benefits for the people we serve. Of course, one of the first decisions we had to make was how to provide a communications network for the smart switches and other automated smart grid equipment we planned to deploy across our system. The problem with most network technologies is that they become obsolete very quickly, and in many cases, upgrading the network means starting over from scratch.
That’s what sets fiber optics apart. Since nothing is faster than the speed of light, a fiber optic network is a lasting asset. Once the fiber optic lines are in place, you can improve the speed and capacity of the whole network by upgrading the optical signaling equipment to the latest technology, and that’s much more cost-effective than replacing everything.
Once we began to focus on building a fiber optic network as the communications backbone for the smart grid we envisioned, we realized we would still have ample capacity for launching fiber optic internet, telephone and TV services.
Starting in 2008, EPB began building a comprehensive community-wide fiber optic network accessible by all of the 170,000+ homes and businesses in our 600-square mile service area. The result is a Gigabit Passive Optical Network that utilizes a backbone of fully-redundant rings, each having multiple 100 Gbps links and more than 9,000 miles of fiber optic lines.
That allowed us to launch America’s first Gig-speed internet service in 2009.
Next, we built out Chattanooga’s smart grid. Today, we have more than 200,000 smart devices deployed across the system including more than 1,200 IntelliRupterTM smart switches, smart meters on every premise, and a variety of sensors and other devices. We’ve also installed a number of cutting-edge technologies that we’re testing through our partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratories and other national researchers.
EET&D – How has Chattanooga’s Smart City infrastructure created additional benefit for the community?
DW – As you mentioned, according to a recent study by Dr. Bento Lobo of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the Chattanooga area saw $2.69 billion in community benefit during the first 10 years after the fiber optic deployment. The study documents a range of positive results including a dramatic reduction in power outages, increased business growth, decreased environmental impact and significant enhancements to the support we provide for innovation and education.
One of the efforts that gives us the most pride at EPB is our work to bridge the digital divide for education. At the outset of the COVID crisis, when schools closed, we knew we had to do something to ensure that every student could continue their education remotely. In the initial weeks of the crisis, we deployed more than 130 free outdoor WiFi hotspots specifically targeted to provide support for the parts of our community where the families of many students don’t have internet access, but we knew that wasn’t enough.
Having Chattanooga’s fiber optic network in place allowed EPB to join with Hamilton County Schools and other local and state partners in launching HCS EdConnect, a fiber optic broadband internet service provided at no charge to the homes of economically challenged families with K-12 students. Through the program, students gain access to a 100 Mbps internet service with no data caps and symmetrical upload and download speeds. We also provide a router and assistance setting up their learning devices—all at no charge to their family. HCS EdConnect is at least four times faster than typical educational support internet options, and it offers ample speed and capacity for video-based learning and other bandwidth-intensive learning applications. Better still, families keep the service year-round. That means it’s available to all members of the family, so HCS EdConnect can also provide support for job searches, remote work, telehealth and more.
Although the COVID crisis sparked this project, HCS EdConnect is designed to provide continuous access to all eligible students for at least 10 years. As a result, the project represents a lasting solution for bridging the digital divide among students, and we have plans to raise the funding needed to continue the effort permanently. Currently, more than 12,000 students have internet access to continue their studies from home through HCS EdConnect.
EET&D – What has the Chattanooga’s Smart City infrastructure meant for business growth?
DW – Dr. Lobo’s study shows how the fiber optic infrastructure directly supported the creation and retention of 9,516 jobs which is about 40 percent of all jobs created in Hamilton County during the study period.
In particular, Chattanooga’s gig-network has been a boon for start-ups and innovation. Since the build-out, local entrepreneurs have raised $1.2 billion in equity investment and crowdfunding with the study attributing $244 million of that investment to support from the fiber optic infrastructure. Additionally, information from Kickstarter shows that Chattanooga has produced about 10 percent of the site’s crowd funded projects during the study period, a higher percentage than any other Southeastern city.
EET&D – Has Chattanooga’s Smart City infrastructure made a difference during the COVID pandemic?
DW – It’s made a huge difference. You may have seen that Zillow named Chattanooga the “Best Metro for Remote Work” in large part because of our community-wide fiber optic network.
As the COVID crisis began, we started working with local companies to increase their bandwidth, add call paths, and provide other connectivity solutions to help them transition to remote work. Because Chattanooga’s fiber optic network was in place, we were able to increase the capacity of these services without having to roll trucks in many cases. As just one example, we were able to increase one company from a 1-Gig circuit to a 3-Gig circuit within hours of receiving their call.
According to Dr. Lobo’s study, Chattanooga’s fiber optic network has helped to keep Chattanooga’s unemployment rate lower during normal times, and this effect has been magnified since the outset of the COVID crisis. According to the latest available numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hamilton County’s unemployment rate was 4.7 percent in November which is significantly lower than Tennessee’s rate (5.3 percent) and two percentage points lower than the U.S. unemployment rate (6.7 percent) for the same period.
What’s that look like on the network side? As national stories swirled about the possibility that the COVID crisis would “break the internet” and YouTube and other video providers actually reduced the resolution of their content in some markets, EPB’s fiber optic network has proven more than equal to the challenge of transitioning to remote work, online education, and telehealth.
In comparing a typical pre-COVID day (March 4, 2020) to a typical COVID day (December 14, 2020), EPB has seen a 75 percent increase in the total volume of Internet Bandwidth Usage over the course of the day. In a very real sense, many companies (and schools) have “outsourced” the traffic that once flowed across their internal networks (and conference tables) to Chattanooga’s community-wide internet.
EET&D – What kind of operational benefits have you seen from Chattanooga’s smart grid and fiber optic network?
DW – The smart grid can detect faults almost instantaneously and re-route power around problems to minimize the number of people who experience an outage. That allows us to cut the number and duration of lasting outages by as much as 40- to 55 percent over any given year. As a result, people who would have been without power for hours or even days, instead see a momentary flicker of their lights as the smart grid automatically re-routes power to them in less than a second. Through remote operation of Chattanooga’s Smart Grid from our control center, we can restore many more people while our line crews go to the damage to complete the necessary physical repairs.
When a devastating tornado and high winds swept through our community last year, the smart grid prevented about 44,000 households from experiencing an outage that would have lasted days. That allowed us to focus our restoration efforts on all of the other customers who remained without power so we could get them back on more quickly too.
Preventing outages saves our customers about $26.6 million each year in terms of avoiding lost productivity, spoilage, and more according to Dr. Lobo’s recent study.
We’ve also seen reduced environmental impact and operational savings because we no longer have to send trucks out to read meters. Instead, we get data from every meter in the system every 15 minutes. This also allows us to provide customers with real-time usage data and alert them to unusual spikes in their consumption. We often find that when we provide this information to customers, they realize they have a malfunction in their heat pump or other issue that they can address right away. Without this process in place, customers might not realize there is a problem until they get their energy bill.
Chattanooga’s Smart Grid also allows us to help manage peak demand, monitor equipment that displays unusual patterns that often indicate an opportunity to do proactive maintenance before something fails, and much more.
EET&D – Are there any lessons learned you can pass on to other utilities?
DW – Definitely. First, I would say that constructing a comprehensive fiber optic network that is accessible to every home and business, without regard to income, creates a lasting community asset that can be used both for smart infrastructure projects and enhancing internet access. When considering a community-based deployment to address a lack of access, don’t forget about smart grid and other smart city applications because they create a tremendous value-add. Working with the City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and other community-based organizations, we’ve been able to draw more than $111 million in smart city research to Chattanooga. From reducing traffic accidents and testing automated vehicle technologies to building micro-grids that can automatically scale themselves larger or smaller in response to environmental conditions. We’ve also created a test-bed for research using quantum encryption to protect smart infrastructure. These are just a few of the many examples of how EPB is working with local and national partners to solve real-world challenges for our community that will also provide a model for other communities.
Of course, deploying a fiber optic network and launching new services entails all of the complications and challenges one would expect from a large-scale project, but EPB has developed a proven business model along with a range of services to make it easier for other communities to deploy. More information is available at epb.com/broadbandsolutions.
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