published Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

EPB throws down the speed gauntlet in Chattanooga

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EPB has upgraded almost all of its customers to faster Internet speeds -- for free.

The city-owned utility eliminated its slowest 30-megabit-per-second tier completely, and added a new 250-megabit-per-second tier for its high-end users as a celebration of its third year in the market.

With the announcement, EPB's new minimum speed of 50 megabits per second is now faster than the top speed of most Internet service providers, said Jack Studer, a partner at The Lamp Post Group.

"Fifteen or 30 [mbps] is where it usually tops out," Studer said. "For 50 to be what every Joe Blow gets who signs up for Internet, that's pretty compelling."

Speeds increased by 60 percent for basic customers, doubled for mid-range customers and increased by 250 percent for high-end customers.

"We have a lot of bandwidth, and we want to see our community set itself apart as a really good place for technology business," said Harold DePriest, president and CEO of EPB. "Those types of businesses like speed."

The upgrade, which EPB did not announce until after it was complete, came as the city-owned utility passed 40,000 fiber customers in the Chattanooga-area market. In its original business plan, EPB had projected a loss of $8 million in its third year, but actually made $4 million as of Saturday, DePriest said.

"I prefer to do something and then tell people about it, rather than talk about what we're going to do in the future," DePriest said. "We thought it was a nice little birthday present as well."

Joe Ferguson, chairman of EPB's board, said the upgrade proved Chattanooga's fiber network "has long legs."

"If you're working on new things, developing new applications, then this is the place to be," Ferguson said. "We want this to be the place to create jobs and create wealth."

Comcast, the utility's chief Chattanooga rival, responded to the announcement by calling attention to Xfinity's programming choices, which currently dwarf anything available from any other provider, said Jim Weigert, vice president and general manager at Comcast Chattanooga.

"I was able to watch the first Mocs game on my phone at Riverfront Nights just a few weeks ago," Weigert said.

Though Comcast offers download speeds up to 105 megabits per second for $200, its 50-megabit plan is now almost twice as expensive as EPB's equivalent plan, according to the Xfinity website.

However, Comcast also offers services ranging from home security and automation to mobile integration that are not available from other providers.

"We think our products and services still provide the best value to what customers want and really need, and we are seeing customers respond by signing up for new services and even coming back after trying other new providers."

real world speeds

The impact of EPB's upgrade may not be apparent in the normal course of sending an email or checking fantasy football scores, but it is especially significant for video and gaming applications, said Aaron Welch, president of Iron Gamer.

"The vast majority of the country is still in the 20 megs or less range," Welch said.

At the speeds available in Chattanooga, customers can watch multiple HD video streams in different rooms, Welch said, or play cloud-based online games.

"With 50 megs, your game doesn't disconnect, your movements are a lot smoother, and the gameplay itself is a lot smoother," he said. "It's not so much the faster speed, it's a much bigger pipe."

EPB also slashed the price of its gigabit Internet speeds -- the fastest in the western hemisphere -- by $50 to $300.

Though the gigabit service is available to all EPB's 170,000 Chattanooga-area customers, the utility has racked up only a few dozen subscribers since it unveiled the service in September 2010. The price cut could attract a wider audience to the blistering-fast speeds, said Ronna-Renee Jackson, interim executive director of the Chattanooga Technology Council.

"I think they're heading in the right direction to make it more affordable for everybody in Chattanooga," Jackson said.

For city boosters like Jackson, EPB's gigabit Internet is a key building block in Chattanooga's plan to attract new talent, especially technologically-sophisticated entrepreneurs.

"We're trying to create a culture here where developers want to come here because there's something here they don't have anywhere else," Jackson said.

But competitors are emerging. Google is breathing down Chattanooga's neck, as the web search giant installs its own citywide network in Kansas City. That network will be free for most customers -- outside of a $300 installation charge -- and gigabit service will cost $70 per month.

But not until the Kansas City network is complete. Currently, Google is still in the planning stages, and the company has not revealed when it will become available.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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