Fri, May 29, 2020

From the porch: A fiber optic future

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The two men most responsible for keeping the lights on in Hickman County provided significant illumination about our broadband weaknesses during interviews with me last week.

Hal Womble and Darrell Gillespie each oversee electric utilities that touch five counties and 35,000 customers; they share Hickman County. They both have integrated 48-strand fiber optic cable running throughout their systems; Gillespie said 1 percent of that high speed capacity is in use.

Right now, the technology Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative or Dickson Electric Service read your meter as well as be notified if your power goes out, all electronically; and connects the various substations and offices to the headquarters, supporting efficient service.

But fiber optic cable is the superhighway of the broadband world. As Womble, the MLEC president, can tell you, the high-speed line now runs past each of his customers, just as it does at DES, where Gillespie is general manager.

They would like to use more of the other 99 percent. For example, they would love to plug all of their member-customers into this bareback bronco of technology. Such an action would immediately and permanently solve the inability of so many rural folks in these parts to benefit from what the internet has to offer.

Bring Hickman County into the modern world, if you will.

One problem, they say: State law prevents their utilities from directly selling their fiber optic services to people like you and me. They have to have a wholesaler – a middleman between them and the customer to run the service, which is very expensive.

One other thing: empowering utilities might provide actual competition to the telecoms like AT&T, who like the law but don’t otherwise seem to be interested in folks out here in the country.

“You live too far apart,” they’ll say, if you can get them on the phone. “We can’t make a killin’ out there.”

As you should know, electric companies were kind enough to run lines anywhere and everywhere back in the middle of the last century, and they would like to solve this one.

“Technology has come a long way,” says Gillespie. “Eventually, it will happen. The federal government is getting more involved.”

The Dickson general manager, in a report on the front page of this week’s newspaper, says the Highway 46 corridor is one of the hottest areas for development in his region, and already is drawing interest from large distribution companies. Those outfits would need employees almost as much as they would need the lightning-fast communication services that fiber optic can provide.

So, what if we get a dead-serious prospect on Highway 46 in in Bon Aqua, and they need flash-point speed? Can you serve them, Mr. Gillespie?

“We would make it happen,” he said. In Murfreesboro, a wholesale provider has purchased service from the fiber-optic utility there and made it available to Amazon, which is doing its fast-serve thing in that city as a result.

Same question Mr. Womble: If a firm that drinks high-speed broadband for lunch wanted to build a big-time facility on Highway 50 West, can MLEC handle it?

“We could serve it overnight,” he said, without a blink, in the same way.

For the rest of us, Womble says MLEC is pushing in this way: in early March, the cooperative filed an “expression of interest” with the Federal Communications Commission that it will formally apply for a $60-million grant later this year to connect its fiber optic lines to customers in all five counties. MLEC would add $10 million of its own money.

What about the state law? Womble says that if MLEC can win the federal grant, it might be able to make a credible argument for a special exception.

How is that not worth a shot?

One other strategy is about to be energized, the MLEC president says: Three transmitters will be installed in a portion of Hohenwald and with the flick of some high-tech switch, those in the immediate vicinity will have the instant ability access a wireless signal.

For free, as a pilot project. There’s no actual connection, so the high cost of an actual plug-in is sidestepped.

Despite the state law, Womble says, nothing on the books prevents him from giving it away. It might eventually become a five-county solution, he says, but not without a cost analysis that the MLEC board can live with.

“One bite at a time,” he says.

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