Government Technology

Chattanooga Claims America’s Fastest Broadband Service


April 3, 2012 By

During an evening telecast in 1969, newsman Walter Cronkite made a startling announcement: Chattanooga, Tenn., had the worst air pollution in America. It proved to be an alarming call to action for civic leaders, who have been working to distance their region from a bygone era of industrialism ever since.

In many ways, the city has succeeded. Chattanooga’s well-kept downtown and waterfront have been revitalized. The Tennessee Aquarium, billed the “largest freshwater aquarium in the world,” opened in 1992. The city’s minor-league baseball team christened a new stadium in 2000. And the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus continues to grow. Music festivals, art museums and rib joints have come to town — the trappings of a cosmopolitan community rather than a blue-collar dumping ground.

But Mayor Ron Littlefield remembers how things once were. Since moving to Chattanooga in the ’60s, he has been witness to the city’s gradual transformation. And now, Littlefield is watching over another metamorphosis — this one centered on amazingly fast broadband connectivity.

Chattanooga now calls itself The Gig City — in reference to the fiber-to-the-home network built across 600 square miles of Chattanooga and surrounding Hamilton County. Up to 1 gigabit per second service now is available to all businesses, residences, and public and private institutions. The network has the business community dreaming big, with aspirations of becoming a Silicon Valley of the South. Meanwhile, the city and county are banking on the high-speed connectivity to help improve public safety and educate the region’s workforce.

“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.”

How did Chattanooga land on the leading edge? A little bit of good fortune, a lot of persistence and — excuse the cliché — public-private collaboration.

Is Chattanooga Really First?

It depends on the definition. The Gig Tank’s website proclaims that “Chattanooga is the first city in the Western Hemisphere to offer 1 gigabit-per-second fiber Internet service to all of its residents and businesses.” Although this appears to be a true statement, it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story, said Craig Settles, an analyst who covers the wireless and community broadband market. There were 1 Gbps community networks before Chattanooga’s, but none that have matched its 600-square-mile coverage area. Santa Monica, Calif., built a fiber network initially to replace its legacy voice and communications systems. The money that Santa Monica saved with the new technology was reinvested to expand the network beyond just government use. Connection speeds now exceed 1 gig, but the network covers about 25 square miles, Settles said. Another difference is that the network originated from Santa Monica’s IT department and not the public utility, as in Chattanooga’s case. And Wilson, N.C., followed a path similar to Santa Monica, he said.

What makes Chattanooga stand out, Settles says, is the coordinated and singular focus exhibited by everyone — the business community and government leaders — on the messaging about Chattanooga’s network. Economic development consulting firm Kinsey Probasco Hays, along with business incubator Lamp Post Group and accelerator The Company Lab, are three of the key drivers.

According to Settles, “Kinsey Probasco Hays is a driving force behind the local and national awareness campaign. The chamber [of commerce] provides much of the hands-on national joint marketing of the city and the network, while the EPB’s team markets the service locally. The chamber, EPB, River City Co. — which some call the ‘Department of Downtown’— and the Enterprise Council (a promoter of high-tech economic development) team up to recruit new companies to move or expand to Chattanooga.”

So although 1-gig networks have preceded Chattanooga, Settles said by marketing effectively, the city did what others haven’t.

The roots of Chattanooga’s superfast network begin at the downtown headquarters of the Electric Power Board (EPB). As its name implies, the municipally owned utility company delivers electricity to the community. In 2007, the EPB began planning for a fiber network, seeing it as a way to improve the electric grid’s reliability.

EPB officials concluded that the fiber-optic network would allow the utility to detect and fix outages almost instantaneously. This, in turn, would save money by automating the switches that control and route power across the grid. The old way of doing business requires a technician to drive a truck to an outage location to turn switches on and off. The EPB calculated that automating the process would save millions of dollars annually, enough to eventually pay for the infrastructure upgrade.

“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. As mayor, he works closely with the EPB’s board and appoints its members. “So if we were going to invest, we might as well invest in the future instead of old technology.”

Then, amid the nation’s economic upheaval a few years ago, Chattanooga got some good news: $111 million in federal stimulus funding that sped up construction. The infusion of cash let the city complete the project in two years instead of five as originally planned. The 1-gig network was unveiled officially in September 2010 and is now available to 170,000 homes and businesses.

What started as an initiative to improve the resiliency of the EPB’s communications pushed the public utility into a wider business — selling telecom, television and Internet services. With the addition of the fiber network, the EPB now offers Internet protocol television and tiered service levels for broadband. A basic 30 Mbps connection to the home costs around $50 monthly — the same price that many commercial carriers charge for much slower speeds. The EPB charges about $350 for the 1-gigabit package.

The network already is paying dividends for customers, said David Wade, the EPB’s chief operating officer. Though many homes prefer the basic 30 MB service, that’s still about five times faster than what the average American household is accustomed to. The upload and download speeds are symmetrical — equally fast both ways — unlike most service providers, which typically offer slower uploading speeds.

In addition to the convenience of crisp high-definition television and nearly instant downloading, the network also is delivering other tangible improvements.

Public safety is a big one. The EPB allows a wireless mesh network for public safety to “piggyback” on the infrastructure. Law enforcement uses this private local-area network to watch security cameras and adjust the intensity of LED lighting in public spaces. The fire department can use the fast connectivity to remotely download floor plans of buildings.

“If, God forbid, we should have something like a Columbine situation in Chattanooga, we will be able to assess the situation much better,” Littlefield said, referring to the high school shooting in Colorado that killed 13 in 1999.

The city also is wiring stoplights into the network to optimize traffic patterns according to the time of day, and will be able to send out real-time alerts if drinking water is contaminated.

Wade said the best is yet to come. Features that haven’t been dreamed up yet will someday become routine. “We have had economic drivers throughout the years, whether it was the interstate [highway] or airline travel,” Wade said. “But now if, you have the ability to virtually do anything, the opportunities are really unlimited.”

As predicted, the network also made the power grid more reliable. When in April 2011 a swarm of tornadoes touched down in the area, three of the EPB’s seven existing radio communications sites went down. Within the area that was upgraded to fiber optic, however, only 5 percent of the communications network was lost, Wade said.

Seeing the project come to fruition has been exciting, Wade said. “You see opportunities coming to our community that wouldn’t be possible. It is really a privilege to be part of something that is good for the entire community.”

How Fast Is 1 Gbps?

The broadband speeds available in Chattanooga far exceed what’s available on average in the U.S. According to reporting from Akamai, the average connection speed in the U.S. for the third quarter of 2011 was 6.1 Mbps — 164 times slower than a 1 Gbps network. Other studies have tabbed America’s average speed in the neighborhood of 5 Mbps. To put a speed of 1 Gbps in perspective, a half-hour TV sitcom’s 23-episode season can be downloaded in less than two minutes. For American households that enjoy only average connectivity, this task would take several hours. And via dial-up service, downloading such large amounts of video is simply a fool’s errand.

The EPB believes the network is good for business. So does the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, which quickly mobilized when word came down that the 1-gig service was in the planning stage. One of the first things everyone realized at the time, said J.Ed. Marston, the chamber’s vice president of marketing, was that Chattanooga had a reputation problem. “Chattanooga is not at the top of mind when you say ‘world-class technology,’” Marston said.

So the mayor, the chamber of commerce and other leaders started selling the city to the rest of the world. One of the first steps Marston and his colleagues took was to apply to the Intelligent Community Forum, a New York City-based think tank that operates an annual contest identifying cities around the world that are utilizing technology to grow their economy. The forum named Chattanooga a Top 7 intelligent community in 2011, and the positive headlines snowballed from there. Marston believes millions of people have now heard about the city’s broadband one way or another — within the U.S. and abroad. The news traveled as far as Brisbane, Australia, where Littlefield was shocked that a technology company he was visiting knew all about Chattanooga’s new claim to fame.

City officials and several private partners are trying to keep the momentum rolling with a new program slated for summer 2012 called The Gig Tank. Teams of entrepreneurs and students will be given temporary office space in Chattanooga as they work on viable business plans that use the city’s unique network. “You can’t do that anywhere else in the United States, because we are the only place where you can launch the thing and test it with a real-life market,” Marston said. A $300,000 prize pool will be at stake for the best ideas.

The ultimate goal is to convert the network into new jobs, and there are already examples of economic activity, Marston said. A local radiologist’s business requires hospitals and other medical facilities to send in large files, and the network’s fast uploading has saved the doctor lots of time. Another company recently opened a call center in Chattanooga partly because of the high-speed connectivity. A for-profit business incubator called the Lamp Post Group has several startups under its roof, some of which are tech-focused, including social media data company Retickr and a logistics company called Access America Transport. “We are still very early in the game, and we have had some tremendous results — a lot of interest and activity,” Marston said. Fully assessing the network’s impact on job creation will take several years.

Chattanooga’s story seems almost too good to be true. After all, only a few years have passed since a string of big municipal broadband projects imploded — from flawed business plans or lack of customers. Marston said other cities would be wise to take pointers from Chattanooga’s decisions. One key ingredient for success is building the project around the public utility if a community has one. The EPB built its entire business plan around the smart grid and the savings that would be achieved by reducing power outages, Marston said. “Everything else — the data capabilities, TV, telephone and all that other stuff — ends up being gravy.”

Littlefield, a city planner by trade, said having a solid plan in place is an obvious must. “It’s easy for them to say that you had the good fortune of just falling into a pot of gold with the stimulus funds. And that is true,” he said. “But we had already planned it out that it would pay for itself.” And stubbornness is another necessity. Littlefield said Chattanooga was sued on four separate occasions by incumbent Internet service providers as the city and EPB moved ahead with their plan. But they didn’t give up.

The mayor also cautions that a community hoping to become home to a 1-gig network shouldn’t expect to be unique for long. In February, Google began installing cable for a similar network in Kansas City, Kan. Like in Chattanooga, IP-based television will be one of the services available. A coalition of 30 U.S. research universities called Gig.U also is ramping up its broadband ambitions. Chattanooga is trying to take advantage of its short window of opportunity — in other words, its uniqueness — before the rest of the world catches up.

Nobody knows for sure where Chattanooga will go from here — and that’s the exciting part. The EPB’s Wade said that when the public utility was founded, the industry was replacing kerosene with light bulbs. Who could imagine that an electricity provider would be in the TV business? He’s excited to see how it continues to evolve in the next 10 years. “I think Chattanooga has a vision for its community for being something greater than it is,” Wade said.

Littlefield is also embracing the unknown. Digital technology is a tool that cities are only beginning to explore, he said. “The most exciting thing that I can say is, I cannot predict — I have some idea about what it’s going to do in the short run, but long term, I can’t even begin to imagine what it is going to lead to."
 


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