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March 13, 2023 | Shannon Smith

Fiber ties Blount County together

All Maryville, Alcoa, and Blount County government buildings, schools, police stations, fire stations, the 911 call center, and Blount Memorial Hospital are all on the same fiber optic network. Let's talk about why that's a big deal.

It all started in 1996 with 600 feet of fiber cable.

“I was the electric director for the City of Alcoa, and every time it would lightning, the phone lines would go down and we’d have communications problems. And being in the utility business, we’ve got to have communication” said Greg McClain, who’s now Maryville’s City Manager.

“I convinced the City of Alcoa Commission to let me just buy a roll of fiber. Our linemen put it up from just one building to the main office, and it never went down,” said McClain.

That roll of fiber proved its reliability, and McClain asked the commission to start connecting all government buildings.

“And it only made sense to me that while we’re running fiber, if we happen to go by something that’s county-owned or Maryville-owned, that we would see if they wanted to be connected, too,” said McClain.

That 600 feet of fiber is now 150 miles of fiber connecting every municipal building in Alcoa, Maryville, and the rest of Blount County. It’s collectively called the Maryville-Alcoa-County Network, or MACNet.

This means all government buildings, schools, police stations, fire stations, the 911 call center, and Blount Memorial Hospital are all on the same fiber optic network.

“That allows them to become more secure, communicate with each other more efficiently, and it allows them to have the same standards in terms of what equipment they have, which makes the whole operation more secure,” said Abhijit Verekar, Founder and CEO of Avero Advisors.

Verekar’s company was hired in 2019 to create a strategic plan for all the fiber the cities and county had already installed over the years and prioritize how they can use it best.

“What’s unique about Blount County is that [the county and cities] actually talk to each other,” said Verekar. “The players there were forward-thinking and understood what needs to happen. It’s very rare. It’s hard to replicate anywhere else.”

So how has MACNet made a difference for the people who live in its orbit? Verekar notes the value of the system truly shined when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“One Friday afternoon, the Supreme Court of Tennessee says, ‘Monday morning, we’re going to go virtual.’ Most counties in the state had to scramble because they didn’t have the connections in place for a judge to work from Zoom. Blount County had those connections in place two years before, so we were able to quickly turn around and do that,” said Verekar.

He said MACNet also helped when kids doing virtual school could use the school and public library internet connections in the parking lots of those buildings. They weren’t having to rely on hotspots, but instead on fiber optic broadband.

It’s also made a big difference in emergency response.

“Before Townsend was on MACNet, the only way for 911 to contact the Townsend Fire Department was by radio,” said Verekar. “Now they’re on the same system as the rest of the county and the 911 center can see exactly where the fire is or where the call came from.”

Now that the fiber infrastructure is set and MACNet is proving it’s worth more than the about $4 million it cost to install it, city and county leaders are looking to what’s next for the network.

One thing McClain already sees happening is the expansion outside Blount County lines.

“Now we’re talking about connecting our system to others, to our south, to our north, and becoming part of a bigger network where we can lease fiber space to others that just need to go from, say Chattanooga to Bristol, and then we become a part of that pathway for people to travel and connect buildings all over the place,” said McClain. He said that’s already happening on a smaller scale with a connection to Sevier County Electric in Townsend.

What people in Blount County may notice first is the possible commercialization of the fiber optic network and leasing it to provide internet services.

“Fiber is the pipes. Broadband is the water. Those two don’t have to be provided by the same person,” said Verekar.

McClain said it won’t be the government giving internet to people in Blount County. It’ll be private companies working as the middlemen to lease MACNet’s fiber and use it to distribute internet, paying the cities and county for use.

The City of Maryville has already started this. The city’s website states they’ve “used existing infrastructure to run fiber through a utility pipeline around the downtown district. Communications companies will have the opportunity to lease the fiber in order to provide high-speed communications service to residents and businesses within the area.”

Two companies have already taken the city up on this offer, Allevia Technology and Spectrum Business Enterprise Solutions.

Allevia is a Maryville-based IT company providing managed services and high-speed fiber internet in Downtown Maryville.

Spectrum will lease the fiber from the City of Maryville in order to provide voice and data services with speeds up to 10 gigabits per second.

“If you have a great idea about how you can provide internet to citizens, households, and businesses, all you have to do is lease the fiber MACNet has instead of having to build your own fiber,” said Verekar.

As this slowly gains traction, Verekar notes it’s unlikely he’ll see another city-county fiber partnership like MACNet. He and McClain note that not every local municipality will work together the way Maryville, Alcoa, and Blount County do.

“It’s not to say that we all get along on everything,” said McClain. “We don’t. We arm wrestle like family does on a lot of things. But for the good of the community, we’re willing to set those things aside and partner wherever we can.”

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