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Billy Ray of Glasgow, KY

Billy Ray Reviews Glasgow's Long-established Telecom Utility

What is most notable about Glasgow, Kentucky's municipal telecom is its longevity and its success. It began operating in 1989 several technology and regulatory generations ago in the aftermath of the breakup of Ma Bell and two energy crises centered on middle eastern oil. 1989 was the year the web world wide web was launched from a physics laboratory in Switzerland and was the year the Berlin Wall fell. Glasgow's utility has weathered the ensuing changes and continues to offer low cost, cutting edge services to its community, according to Billy Ray, Superintendent.

Billy Ray responds to questions about the utility, telecom opposition, its service, and its history.

1) How did the Glasgow plan come about?

Billy Ray

In 1986 we started planning our network to address two issues. First, we wanted a ubiquitous communications network capable of addressing every electric meter, and device in our electric network so that we could start the process of changing the way electricity is priced and delivered. We wanted to free ourselves from the 100 year old system of reading meters once a month and applying those readings to a static rate schedule which does not encourage efficient use of energy. Second, we wanted to develop a competitive cable television service to reign in the abuses of the incumbent cable operator.

We settled on a broadband network to address both of these problems.

2) Who are the incumbent cable and phone companies in your area and how did they respond to the municipal plan?

At the time, the phone company was GTE and the cable company was Telescripps Cable. In time, GTE became Alltel and Telescripps became Comcast. They responded with hate and anger. They tried, and continue to try, using every resource at their command to smash the idea of municipally owned networks.

Once municipal service was in place how did they deal with it?

They filed lawsuits (but they lost them all). They lowered rates. They pulled dirty tricks. They tried to get state laws passed making our network illegal. You name it, they tried it.

3) How do the people of Glasgow regard the municipal system. Is it popular? Is it used?

They love it. In 2001, after we had acquired 75% of the market, Comcast finally sold their remaining customers to us and they left town. We are now the dominant provider and have, to our knowledge, the lowest rates for cable and high speed internet access in the US.

4) What do you see as the advantages of a community-owned broadband/cable TV/ phone utility? The disadvantages?

The number one advantage is the economic impact. This is closely related to the other main advantage, this product democratizes technology. By that I mean that it makes it cheap, simple, and available to all. We have the lowest rates. We have local people available in public meetings to answer any concerns a customer might have with this new essential service. We teach people how to use the technology by constantly employing enough local experts to make the technology useable by all. Basically, the advantages of a municipally owned broadband network are the same advantages to having a city owned electric or water system.

5) There has clearly been a lot of work put into the Glasgow system, and you and your community attached hopes and dreams to the effort. Were those hopes and dreams realized?

Sure, but all of this is a work in progress. The project will never be complete as it is evolving daily. Our initial dreams of changing the way energy is used have not been finally realized, but we are putting pieces of this dream together every day. Within the next ten years, Glasgow will form the model for 10,000 other cities to follow in their quest for energy independence.

6) Your project has been in place for a long time by the standards of the technology world and many changes in technology and the regulatory system have taken place since you began. How did you adapt to those changes? How successful do you feel those adaptations were?

We adapt to the changes just like we adapt to new demands and growth in our electric system. We employ engineers and technicians that know our system well and that constantly compare our network to the latest trends. When a new technology or product becomes available, we look for ways to incorporate it into our network. For example, we just launched WiFi access points in different parts of town to compliment our existing LAN/WAN customers with additional wireless access. We just added High Definition and DVR [Digital Video Recorder] capabilities to our cable system. Soon we will add VOD [Video On Demand]. As I said, the network is dynamic and not static.

7) Some of your initial purposes were to save the people of the community money and to keep their money in the community. Was the plan successful in those ways?

Oh yes. The math is very simple. Our cable rates are about $16 per month below the national average ($36.95 nationally, $19.95 in Glasgow). Our high speed internet service is about $19 per month below the national average (we charge $25.90 per month). We have about 8,000 cable homes and about 3,000 (and growing daily) internet customers. Do the math and you see that, since we started in 1989 we have saved the people of this community over $28 million. That number grows each month. Our total investment in the network is about $13 million. So, how can you be more successful than that? Remember, the people of Glasgow see this network as municipal infrastructure, no different from a city street, sidewalk, storm sewer, or park. The rules of return on investment that a private company would use do not apply here. Still, a $28 million benefit from a $13 million investment is not bad at all!

posted: 9/06/04