The skyline of downtown Chattanooga bathes in mid-evening sunlight.Staff File Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Of all the honors and accolades that have come to Chattanooga in recent years, arguably the most significant is the city’s inclusion in the annual list of seven finalists for the Intelligent Community Forum’s award as the “Intelligent Community of the Year.” To its credit, the city seems to hold a good chance of winning the top award.
This competitive international honor recognizes communities around the globe that are excelling in development and broad community use of high-speed Internet access to build and strengthen their economic prosperity, civic infrastructure and successful engagement in the new global economy.
Those are, admittedly, huge and seemingly quixotic goals. But they are being achieved here in myriad ways that, taken together, spur innovation, create new higher-technology jobs, foster the information-technology skills to help students and adults qualify for those jobs, and advance computer literacy and civic engagement among citizens of all ages and economic levels to help them explore meaningful ways to improve their lives.
Much of our community’s Internet, or broadband, capacity rests on the EPB’s nation-leading foundation in the building the first communitywide gigabit passive optical network in America.
No other community in the country has matched EPB’s quiet achievement. Indeed, most U.S. communities — with Internet speeds of 3 to 30 Mpbs, or Mega bytes per second — would be happy to have access to a broadly available bandwidth of 100 Mpbs. EPB, by contrast, has already installed a fiber-optic network that enables it to offer up to 1,000 Mpbs — a full gigabit — to all of its 170,000 residential and business customers.
Most EPB customers, of course, are content with the utility’s Wi-Fi package of fast Internet, cable and telephone. But the broader benefit of EPB’s amazing and far-sighted accomplishment goes well beyond that.
It is allowing the utility to build the nation’s most comprehensive Smart Grid network, which will help it manage its electricity delivery system more efficiently by controlling outages and offering its customers real-time usage and pricing options. And it provides vast potential for new businesses and research activities that require super-fast broadband capacity.
The effort is already paying off. New businesses have already moved here or have begun considering locating here to take advantage of EPB’s broadband capacity in creating new products, services and wireless applications. Among these are Skoodat, Glenveigh Medical, UnoSano, Shared Health, Specialty Networks, Access America and Amazon.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s nationally renowned computational engineering center, the SimCenter, relies on large broadband capacity to solve engineering problems through computational simulation.
UTC and Chattanooga State Community College are developing curriculum using broadband to meet the employment demands for major employers, new and old — Volkswagen, TVA, Wacker Chemie, among others. Hamilton County schools are using high-speed broadband as an integral part of their K-12 curriculum. The public library, city community centers and senior centers are similarly connected.
CARTA, assisted by the Airnet Group, now offers free Wi-Fi on its buses. Similar arrangements with Airnet serve Hamilton Place mall and Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport. Under various public-private partnerships, a range of other agencies offer similar broadband access: These include the Chattanooga Housing Authority, Tennessee Career Centers, the Urban League, Girls Inc. and Livable Communities Initiative.
Broadband innovation is not the city’s only route to innovation. Chattanooga has benefited from a long history of innovative collaborative efforts to spur the city’s renaissance — from cleaning up huge air-pollution problems in the 1970s, to developing model partnerships to create the city’s downtown renaissance, to promoting sustainable, eco-friendly growth. Other innovations have come regularly through city government departments, civic organizations and the Chamber of Commerce
All of these efforts provide a solid history of achievement in building an intelligent community in recent decades. How that stacks up against the six other competitors — two in Canada, one each in the Netherlands and France, and two others in the United States — for the Intelligent Community of the Year remains to be seen. But it should put Chattanooga in the thick of the competition.