JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – It took some perseverance, but BrightRidge’s broadband division has dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s in the content approval process. As a result, more than 5,400 customers in “Phase 1” of the utility’s fiber broadband rollout can subscribe to the internet-TV-telephone “triple play” option, with availability just around the corner for a similar number of households in Phase 2.
“Last Thursday was our first customer installs,” BrightRidge Chief Broadband Officer Stacy Evans said Monday. “Our second customer install was a 95-year-old gentleman and we thought, it is higher-end technology, but the result was good. We were very pleased with what we saw.”
As the TV option comes online, BrightRidge is also finding success in its efforts to get high-speed fixed wireless services to rural customers and seeing a higher-than-expected “uptake” in internet-only customers in Phase 1 of fiber-to-the-home, Evans said.
“We were projecting 15 percent market penetration for the first phase this first year, and even without the triple play we are approaching that now,” Evans said, referring to the 700-plus “cord cutters” who switched to BrightRidge’s internet-only fiber service starting in June. “Now that all the services are available and we have to opportunity to start really marketing this to the customer base we expect those uptake numbers to really exceed the (initial) expectations.”
Evans said BrightRidge will use direct mail, social media “geofencing” and other targeted marketing efforts to build market share in the areas it serves throughout the duration of its eight-year rollout. “We’re keeping very focused for the customer base so we don’t advertise too widely to people that can’t get the service yet,” Evans said.
Tempering expectations for customers in the later phases is one of his division’s biggest challenges, Evans said. His division is funding the $80 million fiber infrastructure buildout with loans from the electric division. Revenue from each phase’s customers rolls into the next phase. Through the first two phases, BrightRidge expects to spend about $10 million.
“It’s a plan we think is very feasible and economically prudent as well,” Evans said. “We’re looking for every opportunity to move more quickly, but we have a very conservative and fiscally responsible board that’s going to do this in a careful manner. We do ask for patience and we’re moving as fast as we can.”
Helping both divisions is the use of “shared services.” Broadband pays a portion of the salaries of positions ranging from customer service and accounting to warehousing, helping offset those costs on the electric side, and also leases a portion of Brightridge’s 160-mile “fiber backbone” that was built for electric service monitoring and control.
Speed doesn’t always kill
Broadband speeds for BrightRidge customers are symmetrical (upload speeds as fast as download speeds) and start at 200 megabytes per second for $49.99 a month. Evans said that compares to much slower upload speeds for incumbent high-speed providers (primarily Charter and Comcast) — often about one-tenth the download speed.
Other available internet speeds are 500MB, 1 gigabyte and what Evans said is the only 10 gigabyte service in the nation that’s available to every customer.
“When people see the amount of broadband they can get we have some really pleased customers,” Evans said. “We have a doctor who became a customer and is able to pull down MRI’s at home, something he couldn’t do with his former provider.”
TV prices are $35.99 monthly for 22 channels, $100.99 for 113-plus video and 50 music channels and $124.99 for 160-plus video channels and 50 music channels. All the services come with “managed WiFi,” 5 hours of DVR, a digital media player and three “active streams.” The television service is streamed, but it doesn’t use a household’s internet bandwidth as it comes through a separate “IP head.”
BrightRidge’s fiber deployment has raised the bar, and in at least one instance, an incumbent responded. Andrew Mosby works from home and lives in the Phase I service area. When he called to cancel his service, Charter offered him a higher speed package and free cell phone service, something Mosby said he couldn’t pass up — yet. He said the upload speeds are still a concern.
“If a customer wins because of competition, that’s great,” Evans said. He added, though, that he doesn’t expect a major infrastructure investment from the cable companies. “They’re going to look at putting that money into the metro areas, the NFL cities. We’re tied to this community – this is our only customer base, so we’re doing what’s best for this community.”
A solution for the outskirts
While the fiber rollout continues, Evans said he’s also excited about the strides being made in serving rural customers through “fixed wireless.” BrightRidge has built two towers in southwest Washington County — one on Persimmon Ridge in Jonesborough and another on Piney Knob in Telford. Towers on Buffalo Ridge, south of Gray, and in Fall Branch are in progress.
The existing towers can easily serve 300 households with 25, 50 or 75MB service, Evans said. New technology could allow those available speeds to double in areas where customers were paying high prices for much slower service, Evans said.
“We’re finding in many of the rural areas they have service, but it’s a marginal service, typically 10 megabytes for $50,” Evans said. BrightRidge’s rates are $29.99 for up to 25Mbps (3Mbps up), $54.99 for 50/5 and $79.99 for 75/10. Evans said developing technology, and the FCC’s pending release of the “Citizens Broadband Radio Service” spectrum should allow for each tower to provide higher speeds and/or serve more people relatively soon.
“We know service is difficult in west and southwest Washington County, and our board was very vocal and concerned that we provide alternatives wherever feasible,” Evans said. “The customers we’re serving have been thrilled with the speeds they’re getting. We’re not overpromising and underdelivering.”