When the banking crisis slammed America in 2007, Chattanooga was already working on a business plan for a citywide broadband network. Two years later, the federal government’s stimulus package netted the city a $111-million grant to speed up the initiative. The municipally owned Electric Power Board (EPB) quickly laid fiber to connect 170,000 homes and businesses. Chattanooga now has one of the fastest networks in the country.
“We made the decision to use fiber to every user rather than just piggybacking on the old copper wires, because we just felt like fiber is where things are going,” Littlefield said. “So if we were going to invest, we might as well invest in the future instead of old technology.”
Littlefield’s forward-looking vision and steady hand kept the project on course despite some challenges. Business interests opposed to the citywide network sued Chattanooga at least four times — all were unsuccessful. Littlefield, who worked in community planning after moving to Chattanooga in 1968, knew the fiber network would bring capabilities beyond smart grid technology for the local public utility. The EPB now is selling customers HDTV and high-speed Internet. The police department has piggybacked a dedicated wireless mesh network onto the system too. The local chamber of commerce, meanwhile, is using the network to attract and retain high-tech businesses, and has started calling Chattanooga “The Gig City.”
“Here is a community with a Southern quality of life, has a pretty good university, has a lot of amenities, and once was the dirtiest city in America,” Littlefield said. “And now [it has] this great technological tool that we can use to build a future.”
Matt Williams was previously the news editor of Govtech.com, and is now a contributor to Government Technology and Public CIO magazines. He also previously served as the managing editor of TechWire, a sister publication to Government Technology.2