Chattanooga's Innovation Culture

(This blog post is based on a trip I made to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in late October, 2011. The trip was paid for by the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce as part of their public visibility campaign.)

Chattanooga, a city of 170,000 persons, has the fastest Internet service in the United States. Every residence and business in a 600 square mile area has access to fiber optic Internet with symmetrical speeds up to one gigabit per second. This Internet service is not offered by one of the major telcos and is not part of Google's gigabit Ethernet project. Rather, the service is offered by the municipal electric power company, EPB (formerly the Electric Power Board), which installed the fiber as part of its smart grid electric power management plan. EPB has no shareholders. They're not in the business of creating profit. They're in the business of serving the public.

The breadth of this vision comes to life when you realize that EPB's fiber optic Internet extends to residents of trailer parks as well as to some of the farms in areas surrounding Chattanooga. If you live in a trailer park in EPB's service area, you can sign up for gigabit Ethernet with a static IP address. The cost? Less than you'd pay for a T1 line in any other city in the nation. And this is symmetrical gigabit Ethernet – more than 600 times faster than a T1 line.

As I sat in the EPB's office and heard this story, I thought: This is the way it's supposed to be. Internet access should not be coming to your home from some greedy telco who routinely puts you on hold for an hour or more should you dare to call for support. I looked into the eyes of EPB's leadership and saw devoted public servants. No hint of bravado or arrogance. “We focus solely on the needs of our customers,” spoke EPB's Danna Bailey in a soft voice. “There are no shareholders here.”

I felt compelled to ask, “Does EPB put its customers on hold for an hour when they call for technical support?” Bailey responded, “We don't do that here. We pride ourselves on treating our customers very well. People often compliment us on the quality of our support.”

How did Chattanooga's power utility reach this point? EPB distributes electric power from the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the big economic development initiatives of the Great Depression. The goal of the power company is to get power to your residence and business and to make sure that power is restored quickly in the event of an outage. At the very moment I'm writing this blog post, 88,000 residents in Connecticut have been out of power for more than six days due to the unusually fierce snowstorm of early November. Presumably, most of these electric power customers will have their electricity restored after eight days, but some might have to wait ten days. Ten days without electricity is pretty rough during wintertime in the northeast United States – not to mention the setback such outages have on the regional and national economy.

This kind of outage is what EPB works hard to avoid. With its smart grid fiber optic technology, it's able to quickly pinpoint where outages exist and then rapidly restore service. With the fiber already being installed for electric utility purposes, it made sense to piggy-back high speed Internet service on this digital pipe. EPB was well on its way to accomplish this goal when a stimulus fund grant hastened the completion of their fiber optic buildout.

The story doesn't end there, though. Chattanooga's gigabit Ethernet project is just one of many ways the city has transformed itself in recent years. The city is positioning itself as a hub for digital innovators and green tech pioneers. A few years ago Chattanooga won a bid to host a new Volkswagen factory. In late 2011, the U.S. Green Building Association rated this factory the cleanest and most energy-efficient car-manufacturing site in the world, giving it a platinum certification. This YouTube video explains the energy conservation steps VW has taken at their Chattanooga factory.

I was given a tour of this factory and noted the thoughtfulness built into many facets of the factory beyond the green aspect. I've been on a number of other factory tours in my life and they're quite typically noisy, smelly and dusty. Other than the expected noise of an auto construction plant, the VW plant was unexpectedly clean and free of bothersome industrial odors. More than 2,000 Chattanooga residents work at this plant.

(Further blog posts in this series will describe other aspects of Chattanooga's innovation culture, including their newly announced Gig Prize.)

- Phil Shapiro

The blogger, a member of the Internet Press Guild, is an educator at a public library in the Washington, D.C., area and teaches an occasional graduate educational technology class at American University, in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at philshapiroblogger@gmail.com and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/philshapiro

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