published Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Federal government models new broadband push on Chattanooga

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    EPB lineman David Everett works to install fiber optic cable along Amnicola Highway in this file photo.
    Photo by Patrick Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Calling Chattanooga "a great example," the White House on Wednesday announced the US Ignite program to spread ultra-fast broadband access across the country.

If it works, consumers will have access to online work, video and gaming resources through the cloud comparable to what's accessible through a top-of-the-line, offline computer.

This marks a major foray by the federal government into the fast-moving world of Internet application development, which long has been dominated by private players.

As part of the plan, President Barrack Obama today will sign an executive order that grants more latitude to companies that need federal approval to bury fiber-optic cable on or near government-owned land.

Growing the physical Internet in such a way "will help show what's possible when communities are connected via these ultra high speed networks," said Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at the White House office of science and technology policy.

But since consumers don't currently have a burning need for 1,000 megabits per second, researchers are going to create the demand from scratch by inventing ways to use the speed.

More than 20 cities, 60 research universities and private companies like HP, Cisco and Verizon have signed onto the US Ignite public-private partnership so far.

The ultimate goal is the connect 200 "community test beds" to deploy 60 "next generation applications" that will showcase the power of broadband and stimulate adoption, according to news releases.

The initiative is modeled on Chattanooga's Gig Tank, which brings researchers, students and entrepreneurs together to develop killer apps for the city's high-speed Internet -- the fastest in the Western Hemisphere.

The Chattanooga-owned utility, EPB, built the gigabit-capable Smart Grid in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy for about $220 million. Gigabit Internet became available for all 170,000 city residents in early 2010.

"EPB's fiber optic network is already proving to be a springboard for application development and entrepreneurial activity, and the US Ignite partnership will broaden the scope of what can be done when bandwidth is not an issue," said Harold DePriest, president and CEO of EPB.

Federal officials will spend $20 million through the National Science Foundation to link up cities like Chattanooga with others that have built or are building ultra-fast broadband networks, Kalil said.

"This will accelerate the development of next-gneration applications, and increase demand for ithe Iternet of future in the same way that email and the world wide web increased demand for this current Internet," Kalil said.

Jack Studer, who has helped spur Chattanooga's private-sector Gig City initiative, called US Ignite "a validation for what we're doing here."

"The big thing that we're missing is the application for this type of speed," Studer said. "It's one of those sort of chicken or egg type things, and that's why we're trying to jumpstart it."

Studer's only worry is that the nature of government itself could become a stumbling block.

"What I hope they don't do is come up with a cookie cutter recipe plan in the beginning," Studer said. "I hope they pick what works, throw away what doesn't and iterate every six months."

That's where the private companies come in, said Kathy Brown, senior vice president at Verizon.

"We're spending a lot of time with that so-what question -- what do higher speeds do, and what is the societal value," Brown said.

One particularly ripe field for innovation is health care, Brown said. Through home monitoring devices, streaming HD video and other technologies, patients could cut down on doctor visits and lower the cost of treatment.

Officials also are targeting education and work force development, advanced manufacturing, transportation, public safety and clean energy, said Sue Spreadley, executive director of the US Ignite partnership.

"These advances present ways to use internet in ways previously thought impossible," she said.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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