Chattanooga has earned national and White House recognition as the site of the nation's first complete gigabit fiber-optic network, a broadband network available to every home and business in a 600 square mile area. EPB, which designed and installed the network with the help of a competitive federal grant, has already used it to develop the nation's — and probably the world's — smartest smart grid system, enabling it to switch electrical circuits so fast that outages which used to last hours may now last no longer than an eyeblink.
But the awesome power of this ultra high speed, high-capacity broadband capacity — and the super-sized software-defined networks that it will propel to usher in the digital universe's next generation of computing prowess — is just beginning to be conceptualized.
That may sound strange, but as two national experts on topic explained to this page Wednesday, conceptualization of next-generation software — software roughly analogous to leaping from early telephone party-line switchboards to personalized cellphone technology — remains a chicken-or-egg conundrum. Software-defined networks haven't been developed because there was no comprehensive broadband infrastructure to use it; and the infrastructure wasn't developed because future super-capacity software hadn't yet been envisioned.
Today, Chattanooga's Gig City/Gig Tank contest participants, who gathered here this summer to help imagine what future software-defined networks may look like, will unveil their initial software proposals for novel ways to use the city's gigabit capacity. The entrepreneurial team winners in the competition will walk away from the daylong finale at the Read House with a $100,000 prize. The student winners will get a $50,000 check.
Venture capitalist and representatives from high-tech companies like Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco and Warner Brothers, which have helped provide funding support for the Gig City competition, will be at the event. So will leaders in US Ignite, a joint private/public partnership tasked by the federal government and the National Science Foundation with fostering American leadership in the development of high-impact, national-priority applications and services for ultra-fast broadband networks.
Two technology consultants with US Ignite — Dr. Glenn Ricart is helping judge the competition: William Wallace is here as a speaker — expressed excitement about the competition for its function as a launching pad into the next iteration of deeply programmable software. The coming wave of software-defined networks, they said, will require three essential elements: ultra-fast networks, gigabit capacity at the user level on a broad scale, and immediately accessible ("neighborhood") Cloud capacity for data storage. So far, Chattanooga is the only city in the country with all three elements, and it may continue to be unique in that respect for another two or three years.
Installation of gigabit networks is underway elsewhere, but at a vastly smaller scale. None have the broad consumer test bed for next-generation software applications that Chattanooga currently provides. That status has already helped the city attract a significant number of new businesses and jobs, and the city's outdoor amenities, rejuvenated downtown and quality-of-life have enhanced the gig attraction.
The search here for "killer apps" for next generation software-defined networks could give Chattanooga a Silicon valley cachet. Three examples already have emerged. One is EPB's multifaceted smart grid software. Another is the SIM Center's public emergency/evacuation software, which uses real-time data to provide first-responders and individual drivers in large cities simultaneous, synchronized information around changeable no-go zones to the best evacuation routes. A third enables physicians to perform personal examinations of patients remotely.
Given the magnitude of the software-networks yet to imagined, it is clearly in the city's interest to maintain support of Gig City innovation. The next competition for ideas for future software applications is being sponsored by Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, in partnership with the NSF and US Ignite. If Chattanooga embraces our geeks along with our gig, our future will be brighter in all ways.