Broadband in Downtown Knoxville: Reality for Some, Dream for Others

Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, April 2013
Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, April 2013

I hope you all enjoyed what has to get the “Most Incredible Weather” award for downtown Knoxville in many months. And what a perfect weekend for it to start! With a downtown marathon as well as many shorter races, a chalk walk, Rhythm and Blooms and many other events which depended on being outside much of the time, it could not have been better.

I’ll have more to say on the weekend as the week advances, but I want to start the week with some unfinished business from last week. Last Thursday night at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center on Market Square, a about seventy-five people met

Bill Lyons, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, April 2013
Bill Lyons, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, April 2013

to discuss Broadband Internet Availability in the downtown area. Bill Lyons hosted the meeting on behalf of the city and began with a statement that Chattanooga’s broadband situation does not apply to Knoxville. The incredible speeds they’ve achieved throughout the city are not necessary for our situation and they are extremely expensive, carrying a cost of three to five million dollars.

He suggested that the question actually on the table for this meeting is, “What are the obstacles to delivering high-speed Internet to all addresses downtown and how can these obstacles be overcome?” To answer these questions and contribute to the conversation, representatives were assembled for many of the stakeholders in such a question. Present were Bill Lyons, Rick Emmett, Jesse Mayshark and Madeline Rogero (who did not enter the conversation) from the city, as well as representatives from Connected TN, Comcast, KUB, ATandT and others. Art Carmichael, who had loudly raised the issue on Facebook, continued to raise his voice to ask difficult questions and various businesses downtown were represented by people like Ian Blackburn from AC Entertainment.

Broadband Meeting at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, April 2013
Broadband Meeting at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, April 2013

The obstacles appear to be conduit that is maxed out beneath the city streets, poor data connections into various buildings in the city and questionable wiring going into the buildings. Michael Haynes raised the question of what is being done to make sure that new construction or renovation includes adequate infrastructure to provide for data needs so that we don’t add to the mess. The answer appears to be that we are doing nothing to make sure the problems aren’t perpetuated.

Rick Emmett, speaking for the City of Knoxville, said that efforts are made whenever city streets have to be excavated to add whatever data infrastructure is needed to that spot. The result of this effort and many years of development downtown has left a patchwork of good and bad areas for data access. A couple of maps were displayed which illustrated some of the best and worst served areas. The projected map was from Connected TN and shows only residential issues.

This raised another point, with some participants seeming to suggest that businesses are taken care of adequately and the only problem is residential, caused mostly by buildings and internal construction that could not have anticipated modern data needs. Others disagreed. Even Jesse Mayshark, who currently works with the city, acknowledged that the broadband service to his former employer, the Metropulse, with offices in the Burwell Building, above the Tennessee Theatre, does not have the speed delivered that would be desired to run a modern media company. Ian Blackburn of AC Entertainment echoed the sentiment for their business, which is located in the Conley Building.

The Comcast representative insisted that they work with any building owner who requests higher speed or better service, indicating that they have “letters of intent with five buildings,” currently on file. He pointed out, however, that “return on investment” ultimately determines what they are willing to do. Countering some of what was being implied, he said that businesses downtown do not typically pay more for service and has adequate availability in the downtown area.

Art Carmichael and Courtney Bergmeier, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, Arpil 2013
Art Carmichael and Cortney Piper, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Market Square, Arpil 2013

Art and Cortney Piper of Piper Communications suggested that the business picture isn’t so clear. Ms. Piper stated that she was told by Comcast that they can’t get permission to access the KUB easement to do what is necessary to fix the Conley Building – a contention that the Comcast representative hotly denied. Art pointed out an instance of an estimated eleven month build-out for high speed access and noted that would be a deal-breaker for many small businesses. There seemed to follow some agreement that smaller businesses might have a harder time.

Agreement was also reached that inadequate information is available as to who has the issues downtown and what the problems might be. A survey seemed to be in the offing with the involvement of CBID and mapping of the results by Connected TN. I wondered (to myself only) if CBID or anyone else really has the capacity to contact most of the downtown residents.

Finally, Ian Blackburn may have come up with the winning idea: Wireless access throughout downtown. He even suggested a company which does excellent work in Asheville. He insists that Skyrunner, a small company based in that city, does amazing things with data availability and could likely do the same for downtown Knoxville. Rick Emmett agreed to talk with them on behalf of the city to see how much cost would be involved and whether such an idea is logistically possible.

It certainly seems as if it should be. The idea would be to mount transmitters on some of the highest buildings around downtown. It would not be a free service, but would circumvent the need for conduit and cable in the ground. It would not necessarily change internal building issues, but it would be a start. I also spoke to Rick about the possibility of a free wireless signal to Market Square which seems like a no-brainer, to me. He said that has been discussed, but simply not implemented.

So, while some of us are doing fine, some are struggling with data availability. It is no longer a luxury, however, that some can comfortably enjoy while others go wanting. It’s a necessity as business and personal data needs increase and, in fact, become increasingly intertwined.