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Google or Not, Cities Pin Hopes on Gigabit Networks

The list of gigabit cities continues to grow, as officials hope investments in high-speed networks will translate to economic development success.

by / June 12, 2013

Google says super high-speed Internet is the future. But the company doesn’t have a crystal ball, nor are all of its projects successful. Part of Google’s business model includes taking risks -- some projects don't pan out or may eventually be discontinued, like the recently abandoned but popular RSS reader, Google Reader.

But Google isn’t hemming and hawing about gigabit Internet. Its message is clear. The cities that Google chose to be its first fiber cities will be at the forefront of the next generation of Web technology, said Google Communications Associate Jenna Wandres. “We really believe that this is an investment in the future of the Web,” she said.

And now it seems gigabit networks are becoming a trend. Smaller cities like Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Tullahoma, Tenn., are popping up in headlines with announcements of their own gigabit fiber networks. Vermont Telephone Company made the news with an announcement of gigabit service availability for $35 a month. As more cities look to Chattanooga, Tenn. and the Google Fiber cities of Kansas City; Provo, Utah; and Austin, Texas, they see a future. These cities, full of hope to boost their local economies and reinvent themselves, want to be a part of the gigabit movement and all that goes with it.

In Fresno, Calif., CIO Carolyn Hogg said her city was considering gigabit Internet as part of an effort to revitalize its downtown, an ongoing effort led largely now by an IBM Smarter Cities Challenge grant, which officials say could turn the city into a global mecca of ag-tech research.

Chattanooga, the grandfather of gigabit networks with about four years of operation under its belt, also sees its gigabit network as a springboard to a brighter future. Built initially as a platform for the city’s smart power grid, the network was also seen as an incentive to lure tech companies and promote economic growth. Chattanooga even rebranded itself as the “Gig City,” and now regularly holds development contests and promotional events, committing to a tech identity with a fervor that shows the world it is ready to become the next Silicon Valley.

And Chattanooga’s successes have already proven that operating a gigabit network can yield results. Beside the qualitative benefit of faster Internet, Chattanooga showed that its network could save its publicly run power company millions and save the local economy even more through its gigabit-powered smart power grid. Danna Bailey of Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber Optics said that the local economy was losing an estimated $100 million each year from power interruptions, according to a study conducted at UC Berkeley. But its investment in gigabit is already paying off, she said.

“We’re seeing pretty consistent 55 to 60 percent reduction in outage duration, so we’re really pleased with the results there and we’re exceeding our expectations in projection when it comes to the smart grid component,” she said. The smart grid component alone is netting the city an annual $10.5 million in direct savings, she said, not to mention the savings gained by businesses and organizations experiencing more uptime and being able to contribute more to the local economy.

And now Chattanooga is building new services, such as smart street lights, on top of its gigabit network, proving that there are likely more benefits ahead. New savings and innovative public services like these are just the beginning of the types of new ideas Google was dreaming of.

The project had its detractors at first, Bailey said, but almost everyone has come around at this point and the value of the network should be obvious. “We believe that true broadband is as critical infrastructure today as power was at the turn of last century,” she said.

Berkeley economics professor Glenn Woroch said that Bailey’s comparison was apt, but warned that building a gigabit network isn’t a sure thing for an economy, either. “I understand the motivation for it, but there are more failures in ‘build it and they will come’ projects than there are success stories,” he said. “If you look around the world, everybody is trying to reproduce Silicon Valley’s success.” Woroch pointed to Silicon Alley in New York and Stockholm, Sweden, as emerging tech hubs that have achieved some success at emulating Silicon Valley, but said that trying to force economic development is rarely successful. Economic development usually needs to happen organically, he said.

Tullahoma, Tenn., announced their plan to offer gigabit service in April, following neighboring cities like Bristol, Morristown, Pulaski and Jackson, which all operate non-gigabit broadband networks. The city’s publicly owned utility company, Tullahoma Utilities Board, looked at its neighbors’ networks before moving forward with gigabit, General Manager Brian Skelton said, but the idea of rolling out super high-speed Internet was a no-brainer.

“The driver behind it was economic development and jobs, trying to keep jobs in Tullahoma, trying to bring jobs to Tullahoma, to encourage technology businesses to move here and to expand here,” he said. “We would hope to see economic development returns within the first year or two of it being operational. And we have certainly seen some of those.”

Already, Skelton said, at least one software company of about 30 employees moved to Tullahoma simply because of the city's gigabit Internet offering. Likewise, the city has had several new residents move there because high-speed Internet was not available in the neighboring city in which they lived and they needed it for either work or play, he said.

As for the gigabit trend, Skelton estimated that most cities have a similar idea. “I think they all have the same goal in mind – to be able to grow their communities, to have an economic development advantage, and firms are looking at multiple communities in multiple states,” he said. As for Tullahoma's own economic growth, Skelton thinks it’ll continue to see more success.

Even in cities already considered technology hubs, like Seattle, leaders are looking to gigabit Internet as a both a necessity and a natural progression of what got those cities where they are in the first place. Seattle Chief Technology Officer Erin Devoto said Seattle’s gigabit network, which will begin offering service to its first customers this year, began as a dream of city officials years ago. “We think it’s critical to our economic growth,” she said.

Image from Shutterstock.

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Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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