The Shared City

Chattanooga’s Slow Growth Approach to Being the City of Breakneck Internet

Chattanooga schools take advantage of the city’s high-speed Gig network for interactive lessons. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The southeastern Tennessee city of Chattanooga has had blazingly fast Internet longer than just about any other place in the country. How fast? If most places in the U.S. are connected to the Internet by tubes the size of a standard green pea, Chattanooga’s is about the size of a basketball. As the first true domestic "gig city," then, people have scrutinized Chattanooga, attempting to figure out whether the gig has (a) succeeded or (b) failed in transforming the place nearly overnight. The New York Times, for one, gave it a good honest go this winter. But talking to even the gig’s biggest advocates in Chattanooga suggest a way of thinking about the power of the gig as something that, if it’s there, will be revealed bit by bit, slowly over time.

One additional bit came yesterday. The Gigabit Community Fund from Mozilla, the open-source software giant, announced that three projects in Chattanooga will receive funding aimed at demonstrating that the gigabit can be powerful in the everyday lives of people. (Kansas City, home to Google Fiber, had five awarded projects.) The monies handed over aren’t tremendously large amounts, between $5,000 and $30,000 to each project: a music education app, "a content remixing curriculum," and an online video editor. Mike Bradshaw is the executive director of a Chattanooga business accelerator called The Company Lab. "These are startups," he says, "so $10,000 is nothing to sneeze at, but you’re not going to change the world with just that." What that money is, though, he says, is something of a dog whistle to others that Chattanooga is a place to come build neat things. "Things take time," Bradshaw puts it. "Big things happen from many small things added together."

Jeff Cannon is both the Chief Operating Officer and the Chief Innovation Officer for the city, and so he has a front-row seat to attempts to attribute just about everything good in Chattanooga to the gig. People come to the city, he says, "and they go, oh your waterfront’s so beautiful. Your weather is perfect. This must have happened when you rolled out your gig network." He’s laughing, but the inclination to see the gig as a silver bullet can be frustrating, or at least limiting. "We’re trying to bring our constituencies along," he says diplomatically. Volkswagen opened up an assembly plant here in 2011. "When you don’t have a $400 million company opening up specifically because of the technology, people are like, ‘Why is that not happening? Where’s the Volkswagen of Internet?’" What that misses, Cannon offers, is the six smaller companies who might be in the city because one employee at each thought, "I want to live there for the beauty. I want to live there for X, Y, and Z. And I want to live there because of this access I can’t get anywhere else."

Chattanooga’s fast Internet came about through a series of well-played accidents of timing. About a half-dozen years ago the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, which is an independent city agency, started laying down fiber simply to support a communications component of their energy grid. They’d planned on financing it with bonds. Then the economy tanked. At just the right moment, the federal Recovery Act provided a boost to get the network built — and at a much faster pace. EPB began by offering Chattanoogans Internet at decent speeds for market prices. Soon they got to the point where they were able to offer a full, enormous gigabit for a palatable $70 a month. Some 4,000 customers, according to EPB, are signed up for that plan now. Another 50,000 — about a third of the city’s population of 170,000 — get a still-robust 100 megabit-per-second hookup.

Without too much ado, the low-key mountain city ended up on the front lines of the movement towards fiber-optic networks. In addition to its fiber project in Kansas City, Google is rolling out its gigabit network in both Austin and Provo, Utah, and considering expansion in 34 more cities. AT&T this week floated plans to, possibly, spread its gigabit-capable network to 100 cities and towns. U.S. Ignite, a non-profit backed by both the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation, has been working foster ultra-fast networks across the country by sparking the creation of applications to run on them.

In Chattanooga, the consumer gig was, in some way, lagniappe on top of the city’s smart grid. But what it has done for people in the city, says Cannon, has been to change the way they think. Cannon recalls a conference in Boston for a technology-based reading program popular with cities. He says he came away realizing that Chattanoogans, nearly uniquely, were freed from the technological roadblock that plague other cities. The city could experiment with the reading program — or whatever else its residents dreamed up, whether that is a coding camp at the gig-powered downtown library or interactive programs for the “baby college” to educate new parents that Mayor Andy Berke has pledged to start in now-wired community centers.

Bradshaw, of The Company Lab, calls what’s happening in Chattanooga "a forerunner of a future that’s inevitable." And as that happens, he says, "people who have established a beachhead will be in a really advantageous position." It will, in other words, be a brave new world for most, but Chattanooga will be ahead of the game by virtue of its years of experience with living a gig-enabled existence.

Danna Bailey is a spokesperson for the Electric Power Board, which runs the gigabit network. When I asked her about the payoff of having a gig network around, she responded with a story from the early history of the company, which was founded in 1935. "When EPB first started serving people in Chattanooga," says Bailey, "if you wanted electricity at your house we brought you one light bulb and one fixture and we installed that in your home. And if you moved, we came back and got it. We took the light bulb and the fixture and we installed it in your new home."

She explains the point. "At the time electricity was considered a more convenient alternative to oil lamps. If in those days a house had been built with an electric socket every six to eight feet, people would have said, ‘I don’t need that many lamps. I don’t need that much light.’ That was the only frame of reference they had for it at the time. Refrigeration, computing, dishwashing, electric cooking…they didn’t all happen overnight because electricity was ubiquitously available. But none of those things could have happened if it hadn’t been."

So Chattanooga is taking the patient approach, trying things out, learning as it goes along. This summer the city will host its third annual GIGTANK, a startup accelerator that will take about a dozen high-tech companies, work with them for a few months, and then stand them up in front of possible investors. Bradshaw says that they’ve figured some things out in those few years. Even the presence of a gig’s not enough to compete with accelerators in places like Silicon Valley and San Francisco that are hunting for the next great app. To differentiate, they’ll focus for the first time this year on what makes Chattanooga Chattanooga, with tracks focusing on energy smart grids, health care, and — in homage to the town’s heritage, per Walter Cronkite, as "The Dirtiest City in America" by virtue of its industrial air pollution — light manufacturing à la 3D printing.

"Who knew," says Bradshaw, "that Facebook was going to happen, right? It was unpredictable." What will be the Facebook-sized killer applications of the gig? Will they be born in Chattanooga? Who knows. "What you do," says Bradshaw, "is you generate as much activity as you can, and then you let the law of large numbers do its thing."

The Shared City is made possible with the support of The Knight Foundation.

Nancy Scola is a journalist and writer whose work on the intersections of technology and politics has been published by The American Prospect, Capital, Columbia Journalism Review, New York, Reuters, Salon, Science Progress, Seed, and other publications. She is a correspondent on technology and politics for The Atlantic. She was previously the associate editor of techPresident, a widely-read daily online publication of the Personal Democracy Forum. She’s talked about governing, campaigns, political organizing, technology policy, digital media and more on the BBC, CNN.com, MSNBC, and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” and frequently appears on conference panels.

Tags: economic developmenttechnologyinternetchattanoogagoogle fiber