Chattanooga’s EPBFi community fiber network has been one of the most celebrated muni networks in the nation. They were the first to offer a gigabit to anyone in the city and have launched a bounty for geeks that relocate to the “Gig City.”
They have connected 35,000 subscribers to the network, blowing away their original goal of 26,000 by the third year. They have attracted thousands of new jobs that would not have materialized if they simply accepted the AT&T/Comcast duopoly for their community.
At the current rate, EPB can shave seven years off the time it will take to pay off its telecom debt, becoming virtually debt-free by 2020 instead of 2027 as projected, Eaves [EPB CFO] said.
Even so, the government utility still is spending money to sign up new customers, a process that will increase debt until 2013, Eaves said.
The utility has $51 million in total debt so far, but it only needs 30,000 customers to break even on operational costs, Eaves said.
“We are currently cash- flow positive from an operations standpoint, but still increasing debt to fund the capital associated with signing up new customers,” he said.
As we frequently remind our readers, finances are complicated. Even though the network continues to do very well, its debt will increase for a few more years while it continues rapidly acquiring new subscribers. Each subscriber takes years to pay off the debt of connecting them.
Recall that EPB unexpectedly got a Department of Energy stimulus grant to deploy its smart grid much more rapidly than planned for. As the electric division owns much of the fiber fabric, the grant does not impact the finances of the Fiber-Optic division, aside from allowing EPB to roll the network out to more people more rapidly. The changed plan increased their costs and their revenues over the original plan.