On the eleventh floor of the Conley Building in Downtown Knoxville, Ian Blackburn keeps the office network up and running for AC Entertainment.
"I'm the I.T. guy at AC Entertainment. I'm the person people come to when they say, 'Hey, why is the internet so slow up here?," said Blackburn.
These days the internet is not as sluggish as it used to be for Blackburn. For years the company's bandwidth hit a bottleneck of bytes at the building's front door because high speed cable service is not available in pockets of downtown.
"Comcast would not provide service in our building, so the fastest connection we could get was a T1 line and DSL. We had 30 people in this office sharing a 6 MB line. Your typical cable modem at home can usually go several times faster than that. We move a lot of data in and out of here with huge amounts of video, promotional material, high resolution graphics, and so forth. Without high speed internet everything takes a lot longer so we absolutely needed an upgrade," said Blackburn. "It was like, 'Wow, Chattanooga has fiber to the front door and we can't even get Comcast on Gay Street.' It was frustrating."
Blackburn said he does not expect Knoxville to install a fiber optic network comparable to the one that has become Chattanooga's claim to fame. Their fiber optic lines were constructed on city-owned utility network, cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and relied heavily on one-time federal grants. However, Blackburn does expect downtown buildings to be able to receive the same levels of bandwidth you can find in the rest of Knoxville.
"A company looking at moving to Gay Street should at least be able to get as much bandwidth as you can get in a Fort Sanders apartment," said Blackburn. "The residential apartment building across from also cannot get cable. It can only get DSL."
Knoxville, like most cities, has relied on free market forces to develop its internet infrastructure. Blackburn said the problem is private companies have to see big dollar signs before they will spend the cash to rewire access to old buildings.
"We finally got high speed internet through Windstream here because we made it where the entire building basically has one big internet account. Everyone in this building pitches in to pay for a $1,500 a month bill. That's something none of us would be able to afford on our own. There were still some obstacles with the downtown infrastructure with conduits, right of ways, or something that made the entire process take a lot longer than usual. It took Windstream a full year to get everything into the building when it normally takes them 30 to 45 days."
While the City of Knoxville has no interest in getting into the internet service business, it is now searching for ways to broaden the bandwidth downtown. On Thursday city officials held a public meeting at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center located at Market Square to discuss issues with downtown broadband internet access.
"We think our appropriate role is to find out what the challenges are and see how we can facilitate private providers making those connections," said Bill Lyons, Chief Policy Officer for the City of Knoxville. "The first thing we need to do is find out exactly where the issues are and what obstacles are creating any problems. We want to hear from downtown residents and business owners about their own experiences and any suggestions they might have. Then we can think creatively to encourage people to work with each other."
For the time being, Blackburn said many historic buildings downtown remain on a relatively slower grid that ISPs have little financial incentive to improve.
"Right now we can only get DSL in the Tennessee Theatre and the Bijou Theatre. I had Comcast run a site survey a couple of weeks ago and they said it would cost them almost $9,000 to get cable into the Tennessee and over $20,000 to get it into the Bijou Theater, which they are not willing to do. If they can't make a lot of money doing it, they're not interested in providing it," said Blackburn.
Blackburn said rather than competing with Chattanooga's incredibly expensive network, he would like Knoxville to follow the wireless lead of Asheville, North Carolina.
"My idea would be to start a local WISP, a wireless internet service provider, that would consist of a high capacity line going into a series of radios that would broadcast internet all around downtown. They have this in Asheville with a company called Skyrunner that we have used successfully for a number of festivals there. It's great because you can set up high capacity internet to anywhere in an hour. It's done by a private company but it works directly with the city," said Blackburn. "Chattanooga was a unique case that not many cities can even think about trying to duplicate. I don't think we need what Chattanooga has here because fiber to everyone's front door would be overkill. But we do need to get downtown up to speed with basic high speed connectivity."