Gigabit communities are sprouting up across the nation, but what’s the big picture for their future? Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe has a few ideas.

Speaking in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Tuesday, Aug. 6, Metcalfe said it will be critical for gigabit networks to reach critical mass so people can be properly networked. This means gig cities like Chattanooga; Kansas City, Kan. and Mo.; and Austin, Texas; need to connect with one another so that they don’t function as “islands” – only innovating within their own communities.

“A key to networking and a key to entrepreneurial innovation is critical mass,” Metcalfe said. “Connections to the other gig cities would be a great place to start.”

Metcalfe and techies from across the nation gathered in Chattanooga for Gigtank Demo Day – a one-day, on-site and live-streamed event that showcased local startup companies that use the city’s ultra high-speed Internet access. Chattanooga, like other select cities, entered the spotlight after it rolled out gigabit infrastructure to its community.

The event featured a keynote Q&A session with Metcalfe, who was interviewed by US Ignite’s Executive Director Bill Wallace about the future of gigabit connectivity and its impact on industries like energy, education and health care.

Metcalfe’s keynote address also included a discussion on the evolution of Ethernet – the computer networking component that requires “plugging into” the Internet. Ethernet was created 40 years ago, and has been critical to the evolution of efficient connectivity.

From the time Ethernet was first developed, Metcalfe explained that during each stage of building faster Internet connectivity, some individuals thought higher speeds would be “too fast,” or not possible. Metcalfe likened innovation to a “weed” and said that from his experience, pushing the envelope on innovation creates doubt for some people.

But now with unprecedented Internet speeds, Metcalfe said the floodgates have been opened for new opportunities of Internet usage. He added that modern Internet connectivity has disrupted many facets of daily life. He pointed to the impact of email on the U.S. Postal Service, iTunes changing the way the music industry operates and the explosion of online shopping because of websites like Amazon.com.

Although some disruptions have had a negative impact on certain industries, Metcalfe felt change could be a positive for some areas, namely energy, education and health care. For example, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have become a rising trend in education. MOOCs are a free or inexpensive way to provide online education to large amounts of people. But the model doesn’t work unless strong computing platforms are in place to support the connectivity demand.

Metcalfe and a group of 100,000 other people took a MOOC on computer science with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). But despite having access to a free education platform, some worry that the MOOC model doesn’t allow for proper interaction with professors and peers.

To help support MOOCs, Metcalfe believes a more robust learning community needs to be created so students taking online courses can still have the interaction they need to succeed. Metcalfe said figuring out how to develop a scalable learning community under the MOOC model will be one of the “killer apps” of a gigabit network.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.