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Chattanooga transforms into 'Gig City' with some of world's fastest internet

10:15 AM, Feb 13, 2013   |    comments
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Once dubbed the 'dirtiest city in America' by newsman Walter Cronkite, Chattanooga was a place that used to run on a locomotive engine. Today, it's closer to running on search engines.

It's a new track local businessman Jack Studer says will carry the city far.

"It's a very exciting time and place to be," says Studer.

Two and a half years ago he joined with several business partners to form the Lamp Post Group, a business incubator in downtown Chattanooga.

"We're a group of companies that invests in and starts new companies," simplifies Studer.

So far they've welcomed about 13 start-ups to their airy, open concept office, all with a similar simple sales pitch.

"They're like 'what's in Chattanooga?' And when you start going down the list; the quality of life, where you get to live and you have this 'gig' network. And they're like 'whoa, whoa, whoa- what?'" says Studer.

It's a jaw-dropping game changer for those in the tech world.

Currently gigabit internet connections are offered in less than a dozen US cities, and Chattanooga's network may be the largest of them all.

It started when the local electric company, EPB, began upgrading their utility grid.

In 2009 they began installing a 'smart grid,' a system based on fiber optic technology. The grid allows them to do things like reroute electricity around a downed power line, decreasing or eliminating outages.

The special fiber optic wiring they installed to reach every building also allowed them to offer one gigabit speed internet to all of their 172,000 business and residential customers.

EPB originally projected the cost at around $200 million, but offset about half of that with a federal stimulus grant which allowed them to complete the project in just two years.  

"When people understand how far ahead we are as a city from the fiber optic point of view, they're like 'wow, they built that? What else are they going to do?'" says Studer.

But just because they can use it, doesn't mean they do. According to EPB, very few of their gigabit internet customers are residential.

It's mostly businesses paying the $349 monthly fee to access world-class internet speeds.

Clients like the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga use it to offer their students lightening fast download capability, as well as crystal clear video conferencing with worldwide experts, and bulk data transmission possible in few other places.

Last October UTC helped sponsor a concert where a musician put on a live show featuring a guitarist strumming along from more then 2,000 miles away.

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield has witnessed Chattanooga change to a 'Gig City,' and so has the rest of the country.

"Geek is a good word in Chattanooga," says Littlefield. "Now we're hearing from cities all over the country who are coming to Chattanooga and modeling what we have done."

He projects Chattanooga will continue to gain population, while becoming an increasingly younger city.

"We're going to outstrip Knoxville not just in population but in so many other ways. And it's a friendly competition," says Littlefield.

The city may not look like Silicon Valley, but perhaps more appropriately, some have dubbed it a "Silicon Holler."

The mayor says they're doing all they can to promote that image, offering things like "gig tank" which is an invitation to entrepreneurs to come and use the technology to invent something for part of a competition.

"And we have a 'geek move' where we actually incentivize people to move to Chattanooga," says Littlefield. In some instances he says people are offered up to $11,000 in housing incentives.

And many of those people go on to develop businesses, like the ones at Lamp Post.

"We get calls all the time of 'hey what's in the water in Chattanooga, what's going on there?" says Studer.

It's not what's in the water, but what's in the wires.

And that's taking Chattanooga from locomotive speed, to the speed of light.

So can we expect to see something similar coming to Knoxville anytime soon?

Probably not.

KUB says as a municipal utility it's not their role to compete with private companies offering telecommunications.

But that doesn't mean Chattanooga is alone. Morristown, Tenn. also offers gigabit internet capability to both residential and business customers.

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