EDITORIAL: Chattanooga Receives Highest Tribute for Gig-Sized Innovation

The city recently received a very public at-a-boy from none other than President Barack Obama.

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(TNS) Jan. 19--Chattanooga got a shout out of the highest kind last week. We've received a very public at-a-boy from none other than President Barack Obama.

Just as we were praised in the late 1990s for transforming the city from the nation's "dirtiest" to one of the cleanest air cities, we now are being praised again for pioneering our way to building America's first citywide, high-speed fiber network with gigabit-per-second Internet speed.

"It's unleashing a tornado of innovation -- the city is even testing out futuristic technologies like 3-D holograms," the president said Wednesday in a Cedar Falls, Iowa, speech previewing this week's State of the Union address. "And here's what [Chattanooga's] former mayor said 'It's like being the first city to have fire. We don't know all of the things we can do with it yet.'"

It's not just words. It's the future. We just have to look to history to remind us how innovation changes things: In the 1920s and the 1930s, plenty of folks -- leaders included -- questioned why we were wasting time and money to build dams and power lines for the "luxury" of electricity. And then, as now, we didn't know all the things we would do with electricity either.

For two days last week (and probably a few more days this week as the president stumps his broadband Internet expansion piece during his State of Union address Tuesday), President Obama lifted up Chattanooga as a model for the country. In a White House video, Obama holds up his iPad to show a graph with Chattanooga and two other cities towering above all other U.S. cities in broadband speed and innovation.

"When the president shines a light on our city, we should all be proud," Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said Friday. "What's truly amazing is he's telling the rest of the country, if not the world, you should be more like Chattanooga. And he's not just highlighting the broadband, but also praising Chattanooga people for what they doing with it."

What we did was build it, and now innovation is coming, to reshape a line from Field of Dreams.

"In the 2000s, our community leadership saw that broadband and access to high-speed broadband was an issue that we needed to solve here locally," Berke told reporters from around the country last week during a White House-arranged media conference call with our mayor and Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council and the Council of Economic Advisers. "Thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ($110 million from the federal stimulus) and community leadership, EPB built a high-speed broadband network that goes to every home and business in the Chattanooga area. We have the fastest, cheapest, most pervasive Internet in the western hemisphere."

That's important, Berke told the reporters, for economic development and digital equity.

"We've seen a tremendous amount of entrepreneurship, particularly in the innovation world. Open Table -- the largest online restaurant reservation company -- has an office in Chattanooga because it purchased a company that started here [with the city's gig-speed Internet]. In addition, the city is partnering with nonprofits and churches and schools to launch a digital equity drive so we can have more [Internet use] among Title 1 students and we can grow our talent pool."

Think about it. Most of the time, Chattanooga and Tennessee find themselves on the bottom end of things to be touted for: too many shootings, poor health, poor student performance, our state's lack of money smarts in affordable health care or our penchant for fighting and guns that gives us a top ranking for violence and even school shootings.

Yet here we are setting the gold standard for access to world-class broadband Internet -- at a time when three out of four Americans live where there is no competition or no service at all in broadband speed, which is increasingly required for today's business. Our broadband Internet is about 100 times the national average broadband speed.

The president is touting this because he is asking the FCC to end state limits on municipalities and others that might start higher-speed Internet.

The problem facing other cities trying to do what Chattanooga has done and hopes to expand to other nearby cities is not lack of demand, but capital cost of building out broadband infrastructure and a combination of laws in 19 states that stand in the way.

This is not just for access to streaming video or online games. It's about jobs -- existing ones and future ones. It's about a small business saving time and putting payroll systems online, or engineers putting their blueprints in the cloud for real-time collaboration with clients anywhere in the world.

It's time to bring Americans electricity again -- this time in the form of Internet speeds that Chattanooga now takes for granted.

Isn't it nice to be No. 1?

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