Jackson one of seven in Tennessee recognized as a Gig City

By: David Thomas, The Jackson Sun on Jul 06, 2015


It took about 11 years, but the payoff for Jackson Energy Authority came during a business summit in Kansas City, Mo., in January.

Jackson was named the next "Gig City," as JEA upgrades its fiber network to offer Internet speeds up to 1 gigabit per second.

"This is a community that has made available the next generation of broadband," Jim Ferrell, president and CEO of Jackson Energy Authority, said. "These ultra-fast Internet speeds will help to assure innovation as it relates to the next generation of education, medical care, public safety and economic development."

Ferrell said each of these sectors will depend on a solid layer of technology infrastructure. The network will not only provide high-speed access to residents in their homes, but it positions the community to be ready for new industries and their future technological needs.

"JEA's point-to-point infrastructure investment sets the foundation for the future," Ferrell said. "This investment will allow JEA's current EPlus Broadband infrastructure and Jackson, Tennessee, to operate at a full gig capacity and expand to multiple gig capacity as future usage demands."

10 times faster

Ferrell first learned about the recognition Jackson received as a "Gig City" from Ted Austin, vice president of customer service and community relations at JEA.

Austin was one of about 250 people attending a Gig City summit.

"I was caught off guard when it was announced that Jackson was the next Gig City," Austin said. "I attended on behalf of JEA, and I was there on invitation. It was for those who wanted to get into the next generation of broadband."

This was accomplished when JEA began upgrading its optical infrastructure, making its Internet speed more than 10 times faster.

Austin immediately sent a text message to Ferrell and Ben Lovins, senior vice president of JEA's telecommunications division.

"I told them we had just received recognition as the next Gig City," Austin said. "There were representatives there from Nashville, from cities in Canada, communities larger than Jackson, but they were not even close to getting what Jackson has gotten in the last 11 years."

Time for upgrade

Lovins said since JEA had already been in broadband business for 11 years, the time had come to begin replacing its existing equipment.

"We are budgeting just over $10 million for the upgrade," Lovins said. "We have been working on back office support systems for several months (and) the actual equipment placements in the field began this month."

Lovins said the plan is to complete the upgrade over the next 36 months, with customers who choose services over 100 megabits per second to be converted sooner.

Jackson Energy Authority looks for its $80 million total investment to reap dividends for the city.

"Look at how much technology has changed in the last 10 years, and I can't tell you how much it will change it the next 10 years," Ferrell, JEA's president, said. "We're not going to drive technology, but the demand on bandwidth is getting greater and greater."

Economic development

While some Jackson Energy Authority customers benefit with the faster speed when they download a video or install surveillance equipment for their home, Ferrell has much larger projects in mind.

"We're heavily involved with the Jackson Chamber, and economic development was the driving force," Ferrell said. "You are seeing a lot more business applications."

Ferrell said several industries use an inventory system called "Just in time," where companies try to minimize the amount of excess inventory on hand, which helps keep overhead costs low.

"A good example is where an automotive supply company produces a part for a car at one plant — such as an interior headliner — and ships that part to the assembly plant to be installed in the car," Ferrell said. "Many times, this part is produced on the same day at one plant that it is installed at another plant."

Ferrell said in order to operate this system, there must be reliable communication between both plants with large amounts of data capability.

One of few

Jackson joins fellow Tennessee cities Clarksville, Pulaski, Bristol, Morristown, Tullahoma and Chattanooga as the only Gig City sites in the state.

Chattanooga was the first recognized Gig City in the nation.

"The economic impact has been huge," J. Ed. Marston, vice president of the Electric Power Board in Chattanooga, said. "Like many places, Chattanooga has had some entrepreneurial activity, but it has just exploded in a positive way. New companies have moved to Chattanooga, and a lot of investors, outside investors, are looking at Chattanooga."

Marston said although Volkswagen and Amazon selected Chattanooga before the implementation of the fiber-optic system, companies now have the speed they did not enjoy previously. Several companies — including HomeServe USA and Claris Networks — took advantage of Chattanooga's advanced infrastructure.

The availability of the ultra-fast Internet connection has led to a growing start-up scene, where over 1,000 new jobs within start-up companies have been created since Chattanooga began offering ultra-speed Internet service in 2009.

Jackson is hoping for similar results at theCO, an entrepreneur and innovation center.

"We can say we've created a few new jobs," Dan Drogosh, media and facilities manager at theCO, said. "It's definitely shortening the process."

Standing out

Kyle Spurgeon, president/CEO of the Jackson Chamber, said the system makes Jackson a more progressive community.

"It's a differentiator, just like Interstate 40 did in the 1960s," Spurgeon said. "There are tangible things you can do, and more companies will look at our community. The key thing is, JEA is installing and managing the system, and what we do is manage and utilize the system."

Namely residential, government, medical, commercial and private systems.

"When JEA installed electricity, it was not up to JEA to tell us how to use it," Spurgeon said. "With the fiber system, JEA is managing and installing the system, but we have to determine the vision. We've had our fiber system in place over 10 years, and people have grown accustomed to having a fiber system in Jackson, but in some cases, we don't realize what we have."

Some who have taken Jackson's high-speed capacity for granted may be in for a jolt when they leave town.

"If you take a child who was 10 when JEA first introduced fiber to the home, they have always been accustomed to high-speed capacity," Austin said. "Now they are college age, and when they go outside Jackson with their devices (iPhone, tablet, laptop), they wonder what is wrong with their devices, and it's not the devices."

Dana Nails, the director of information technology at Jackson State Community College, has seen exactly what Austin is talking about.

"As far as the community is concerned, the Gig connection is great, awesome," Nails said. "It provides our students with a lot more access, and they have benefited from it, but our rural counties and area (are) still suffering."

Positioned for success

Austin said the fiber caused a lot of people at Jackson Energy Authority to lose sleep.

"For all the right reasons," Austin said. "You have to relate to the things of the next generation of broadband, you have to take advantage of. We're utility guys, and this company builds infrastructure, and this will require constant reliable capacity."

Keeping the system updated is almost a prerequisite considering the competition to recruit industry.

Ferrell said when businesses visit Jackson, they have a list of prerequisites they expect to be met.

"They check boxes, and they may have 200 sites they are looking at," Ferrell said. "If you don't have all these things checked — you want to make it to the short list."

Jackson Mayor Jerry Gist said businesses know what they are looking for in a city before they arrive.

"Many sites are eliminated because of technology," Gist said. "This raises the bar when the city and Madison County recruits. Yes, there is a long checklist on locations, and if you are not on it, you may stand a chance of not receiving a follow-up.

"This puts us in a select group across the nation that has the capability to provide fast (Internet) service to residents and businesses. We're ahead of many, many other cities across the country, and it's a huge asset."

Did you know?

• Jackson, Clarksville, Pulaski, Bristol, Morristown, Tullahoma and Chattanooga are the only Gig City sites in the state.


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