EPB's Vice President of New Products Katie Espeseth said the utility operates a little-known service marketed under the name EPB Broadband Solutions.
It is a part of the utility’s business that sells technical support to other service providers. “Our competitors are sometimes our customers,” said Ms. Espeseth. It also sells call center services, direct Internet access and video product transport services to other providers.
There is also a consulting service that includes market research development of a brand and the feasibility of the smaller utility to serve customers with products associated with fiber optics.
EPB Broadband Solutions is based on the infrastructure that was built in Chattanooga when fiber optics was installed. "It is another way that fiber brings revenue in to our community and creates jobs," she said. The services that are sold to the smaller utilities take advantage of economy of scales that EPB has with its larger volume. The revenue it brings in helps EPB make improvements for its own customers, she said.
In this business, EPB leases fiber to other carriers and provides a system of portals to communicate with those partners that are buying tech support. It was noted that when a business starts up, the customer service and tech support it offers is important from day one. If these are bought from EPB, advantages include an accelerated speed to market, reduction of the business’s financial risk by lowering the investment and benefit from what has been learned in Chattanooga during 12 hears of real-world experience. These services improve a business’s operational efficiency and reduces their costs while receiving exceptional service and technical support, she said.
When a company goes into business and signs a contract for EPB Broadband Solutions, it typically starts out small. As the business grows, it gives EPB a chance to learn and grow with them. This creates a path of new growth for EPB and a way of adding revenue, said Ms. Espeth. And that leads to adding good jobs for people in Chattanooga.
The market for these types of services is seen as those communities which currently lack this type of infrastructure. It is now known that by utilizing the services that EPB can provide, it will enable people in rural, under-served areas, the benefits of being able to work and learn at home. Small electric co-ops, small telecom co-ops and small independent cable companies are all businesses that could see benefits of building broadband, she said. There also are many local power companies within TVAs footprint that are potential customers of these services.
David Wade, EPB CEO, said getting into the broadband business would also help smaller cities which may not be keeping up with technologies, as well as small businesses with the potential for growth. It is a high growth area because of a pent-up demand. And it can be done with hardly any capital expense on our part, he said. The fiber optics network is already built and those who buy it from EPB can take advantage of our economy of scales and our tech support.
EPB already has three separate call centers - one for customer relations, one that handles tech support and another that is the network operations center. Employees at these call centers now mostly work from home but the company maintains a dual set-up by also having office space available. That means that handling more calls does not mean adding a lot of office space. And for now, the workforce is capable of handling the additional calls. There might be a problem in the future because of the difficulty of hiring people now. If it gets to the point current employees are unable to handle this work along with the regular EPB business, things may need to change.
EPB got into this business around three years ago and, until recently, new business has come by word-of-mouth. Now EPB Broadband Solutions is being marketed to targeted customers who would benefit from partnering with the utility. Things are being done now that are not typical of a public utility, said Ms. Espeseth, such as being a vendor at a national conference to make connections and sales. There are currently contracts with long-distance customers in Pennsylvania, Texas and as far away as Colorado and Washington State. EPB partners with other utilities that have fiber capabilities in order to transmit the services from Chattanooga to the distant locations. It is expected that this business will continue to grow. And, once it has been started, the path may lead to other questions or services that have not even been thought of yet, the board was told.
EPB Broadband Solutions is viewed as a good way to help others with Chattanooga being helped at the same time.