Business TN Magazine Editorial on PES Energize

Editor's Note: Fiber Optic Nerve

The last thing a person would expect to find after pushing through the solid brass doors of the nearly century-old neoclassical Giles County courthouse on the historic downtown Pulaski square is a high-tech communications nerve center.

But inside, beneath the contemporary offices of "PES Energize," the telecommunications services arm of local utility Pulaski Electric Service, which is headquartered there, lies a state-of-the-art data center housed within a tornado-proof bunker with fully redundant systems ready to support any size off-site data storage need. It's also the focal point of a publicly owned and operated $8.2 million fiber-optic network providing high-speed Internet access and other telecom services through pieces of glass cable weaving like a piece of spaghetti to every home, business, factory and school in Pulaski (pop. 7,875).

This is not your stereotypical sleepy rural electric system.

Pulaski's massive fiber-to-the-home investment is the antidote to the chronic problem of trickle-down technology afflicting communities its size across Tennessee. In a day and age when broadband market penetration has brought affordable high-speed access to an increasing number of homes and businesses in urban and suburban areas, the same cannot be said of smaller towns. Seeing such sparsely populated areas as unprofitable, the telecom powers-that-be have largely bypassed places like Pulaski, providing average service at best. While a good policy for shareholders, it is not good for more remote communities. Just ask residents of Lawrenceburg, located a mere 20 miles west of the competitive environment in Pulaski, where service and rates are unforgiving by comparison. More broadly speaking, it creates a significant economic development problem in a day and age where businesses—both homegrown and relocated—need access to high speed Internet if they have any chance of competing in the global market.

As Pulaski/Giles County literature states, the "world wide wait" is over in Giles County. But Pulaski, at press time the smallest community in America in to the fiber-to-the home business, is just one of an increasing number of communities across Tennessee—among them Jackson, Morristown, Tullahoma, Bristol, Chattanooga and Clarksville—that have either gone into the high-speed Internet business or have it in the pipeline. In fact, of approximately 40 communities nationwide who have initiated municipal broadband service, a noteworthy percentage hail from Tennessee. It's nothing short of an Internet revolution occurring in the face of monopolistic telecom providers whose policies have to date

hamstrung the economy of countless different industries across Tennessee.

As an unabashedly pro-market business magazine, it is not without some pause that BusinessTN applauds the rapid entrance of Tennessee municipalities into the broadband race. However, it can also be said that those very communities have spurred for the first time a competitive, capitalistic telecom landscape in Tennessee. Besides, if Tennessee is ever to have adequate telecom infrastructure for everyone it's going to require the participation of multiple players, including municipal telecom, private providers and wireless providers. This, in turn, is a compelling reason to arm telecom providers with the tools they need in other key policy areas like statewide cable franchising (guaranteeing bare minimum service) to hasten equitable service across Tennessee.

Gov. Phil Bredesen recently unveiled a public-private rural opportunity fund to help seed small businesses needing access to venture capital in order to grow from their rural outposts. At the time of the announcement, Bredesen acknowledged there are large stretches of Tennessee that simply can't be left behind or ignored when it comes to economic development. Using the same argument, the state must also fast track efforts to ensure greater cyber-infrastructure investment off the beaten track in Tennessee.

Drew Ruble