published Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

Despite Chattanooga's successful tech revolution, not all have shared in the Gig City renaissance

Chattanooga built a $7 million wireless mesh network to give police officers the ability to access their laptops anywhere in the city. But dead zones persisted and the program never flourished. In this picture Brad Shirley installs a wireless mesh access point in Foxwood Heights.
Chattanooga built a $7 million wireless mesh network to give police officers the ability to access their laptops anywhere in the city. But dead zones persisted and the program never flourished. In this picture Brad Shirley installs a wireless mesh access point in Foxwood Heights.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Overall high-speed broadband penetration — number of connections — percent of residents on gigabit

* Communities with greatest percentage of high-speed broadband subscribers(100 - 1,000Mbps):

1. Apison — 744 — 44 percent

2. Signal Mountain — 2,921 — 43 percent

3. Lookout Mountain — 398 — 42 percent

* Communities with lowest percentage of high-speed broadband subscribers

1. Downtown — 120 — 7 percent

2. Alton Park — 227 – 15 percent

3. East Lake — 542 — 15 percent

Source: EPB, based on total number of potential customers

Gigabit penetration — number of connections — percent of residents on gigabit

* Communities with greatest percentage of gigabit subscribers (1,000 Mbps):

1. Signal Mountain — 263 — 4 percent

2. Apison — 63 — 4 percent

3. Lookout Mountain — 36 — 4 percent

* Communities with lowest percentage of gigabit subscribers

1. Alton Park — 5 — 0.1 percent

2. East Lake — 20 — 1 percent

3. East Chattanooga — 59 — 1 percent

Source: EPB, based on total number of potential customers

Most disconnected states

Share of residents with no computer or Internet connection*:

1. Mississippi — 26.8 percent

2. New Mexico — 21.7 percent

3. South Carolina — 21.6 percent

4. West Virginia — 21.5 percent

5. Tennessee — 21.2 percent

Source: Measured as a percent of residents with no computer and no Internet connection at home or elsewhere. U.S. Census Bureau, 2011

Characteristics of the disconnected:

1. No high school diploma or GED — 44.9 percent

2. Income of less than $25,000 — 35.6 percent

3. 65 years of age or older — 35.5 percent

4. Not in labor force — 26.3 percent

5. Hispanic (of any race) — 25.9 percent

6. Posses a high school diploma or GED —24.7 percent

7. Black — 24.5 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2011, measured as a percent of residents with no computer and no Internet connection at home or elsewhere

To survive, human beings require food, shelter, a job, perhaps even love.

But some experts want to make a last-minute addition to the age-old hierarchy of needs: ultra high-speed broadband.

Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, called Chattanooga “the poster child” for the benefits of community broadband efforts, pointing out that the Scenic City could have found itself on the “wrong side of the digital divide” had it neglected its Internet infrastructure.

Such a digital divide is about more than missing out on cat videos and Miley Cyrus rumors. Internet subscribers today use the web to apply for jobs, enroll in online courses and start businesses. Those without Internet access are at a disadvantage at a time when everything from community newsletters to homework assignments requires a network connection, officials say.

“Chattanooga’s investment in community broadband has not only helped ensure that all its citizens have Internet access, it’s made this mid-size city in the Tennessee Valley a hub for the high-tech jobs people usually associate with Silicon Valley,” Wheeler said.

It’s true that Chattanooga’s startup sector has risen from the ashes of its foundering foundry businesses in recent years, thanks in part to the city’s gigabit Internet infrastructure. But hidden in the shadow of Chattanooga’s successful tech revolution lurks the uncomfortable fact that not all residents have shared in the Gig City renaissance.

Though more than 4,000 in Chattanooga are currently surfing at gigabit speeds thanks to the citywide fiber broadband network — the fastest and most affordable such network in the western hemisphere — thousands in East Chattanooga, Alton Park and elsewhere have no Internet connectivity whatsoever, and thousands more surf along at sub-broadband speeds.

The divide is largely between rich and poor.

Just five Alton Park residents, or only a fraction of 1 perent, subscribe to EPB’s gigabit service, while 1 percent of East Chattanooga residents have chosen to purchase ultra-fast broadband. The percentage of residents in both Signal Mountain and Apison who have subscribed to the gig is four times of that in the city’s economically-depressed core.

EPB’s second-highest tier, 100 megabits per second, is still substantially faster than the Internet speeds across most of the United States. When added together with those who subscribe to the gig, 42 percent of Lookout Mountain residents are on high-speed broadband, compared to just 14 percent in nearby Alton Park.

It’s not because high-speed broadband isn’t universally available. It is. Each of the city’s more than 170,000 households and businesses is connected to EPB’s fiber network, and can subscribe for $69.99 per month — a penny less than Google’s similar efforts in Kansas City. For those with children on free or reduced price school lunches, Comcast even offers an Internet Essentials program that costs just $9.95 per month.

There are no local figures available for the participation rate in the Comcast program, but just 300,000 nationwide out of the 31.8 million families in areas served by Comcast have applied for the program, according to the Center for Public Integrity. That’s less than 1 percent.

Census data shows that for some, Internet isn’t always at the top of the priority list.

In 2011, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available, the U.S. Census Bureau found that more than 20 percent of Tennessee residents have no connection whatsoever to the Internet, including more than 15 percent who own a computer. There’s no reason to believe that Chattanooga is any different, officials say.

That places Tennessee in the top five states as measured by how many residents living a disconnected life, behind Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina and West Virginia.

The Census also showed that Americans who are over 65, black or Hispanic, make less than $25,000 per year, are unemployed and didn’t graduate high school are far less likely to spend money on an Internet connection, compared to those with high incomes and educational levels.

The younger, richer and more educated that residents become, the more likely they are to subscribe to the Internet, and the more likely they are to buy into the dream of Chattanooga’s ultra-high speed broadband. Meanwhile, tech startups and entrepreneurs are forced to look outside Chattanooga to find talent, because the city simply doesn’t turn out enough developers, designers and web-savvy creators to fuel the city’s small business growth.

That’s a problem that Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke says he plans to solve.

“For us to provide opportunity for people in our community, and in particular young people, they have to be literate on the Internet,” Berke said. “To have numerous families with no connectivity in their home makes that problematic. Over the course of time, we certainly want to figure out ways of expanding that connectivity to high speed, but if you’re not on Google.com at all, it doesn’t really matter whether you have a gig or not.”

The challenge is no less daunting for Chattanooga, a city on the bleeding edge of Internet connectivity, than it is elsewhere, Berke said. There simply aren’t many ideas that any community has tried that has worked to close the divide, he said.

“I certainly wish that there was a turnkey operation that we could use,” he said.

Such operations have been tried and abandoned in the past. One such program saw city leaders in Philadelphia partner with Earthlink to build a citywide wireless network and charge low-income residents $10 per month to log in.

But EarthLink dropped out of the deal after the service was not widely adopted, and fees failed to pay for upkeep on the infrastructure. In addition, most residents using the network were already wealthy enough to own iPhones or computers, which defeated the purpose.

Chattanooga has already built a similar $7 million network, which it calls a wireless mesh. Patterned on the same wireless-N standard used in home routers, the network was originally built to allow police officers the ability to access their laptops from anywhere in the city, but dead zones persisted and the program never flourished.

Though the beer keg-shaped wireless routers are still out there broadcasting signals, allowing citizen access could be an expensive proposition for the city, said Ken Hays, recently-appointed director of the Enterprise Center.

City officials have repeatedly downplayed the idea of allowing residents to access the Internet through the citywide Wi-Fi network, pointing out that legal issues, the prevalence of 4G cellphone devices and the unknown cost of such a venture raise questions about the feasibility of flipping the switch.

“We’re looking at all that, but at the end of the day there’s a cost associated with this stuff,” said Hays, who Berke has tasked with closing Chattanooga’s digital divide.

Some local groups aren’t waiting for the city to act. Mike Ballard, IT training and development specialist for the Hamilton County Department of Education, said the county’s schools are testing a number of programs to raise Internet literacy among students.

Howard High School, which draws most of its students from economically depressed neighborhoods, in 2013 raised funds to equip each freshman with their own iPad. And the school system is beginning to equip buses with Wi-Fi networks, which would allow students to do homework and surf the web to and from school, Ballard said.

“These kids are hungry for this kind of information, where they can go down an educational rabbit hole on the Internet,” Ballard said. “We’re moving there slowly, and hopefully.”

The goal is to infiltrate Chattanooga’s poorest communities through the school system, giving students the digital literacy they need to convince parents and neighbors of the importance of Internet access. If such an effort can overcome the present inertia, schools could begin to “flip the classroom,” allowing students to learn lessons at home instead of in class, and use school as a place to do activities that are traditionally done after class.

“If there was a gig in every community, the teacher wouldn’t have to fear what kind of access my kid has, is my kid going to feel left out where, if there’s a real graphic intensive site, is it going to be frustrating for you to go through this lesson,” Ballard said.

Entrepreneurs are also kickstarting their own digital literacy efforts. Paul Cummings, who trains executive teams for Fortune 500 companies and recently co-founded Swift Wings Ventures, plans to fund a for-profit startup called TechTown.

He’ll train hundreds of kids each year to become developers and designers, providing them with technology and training after school to fuel Chattanooga’s venture growth.

“It’s crazy that we’re looking outside of Chattanooga for talent, when there’s so much untapped talent right here,” he said.

EPB, the city-owned utility responsible for building out the gigabit network, is also taking steps to bridge the divide between rich and poor, though officials don’t describe it in economic terms. The biggest hurdle for the utility in reaching everyone with high-speed fiber has been multi-family housing, especially apartment complexes that have pre-existing deals with a competitor, said Katie Espeseth, vice president of EPB’s fiber optics division.

“In many cases you’re dealing with a landlord who may have an agreement with an existing provider to have services in their building,” Espeseth said. “There may be wiring differences where the landlord is not prepared to let you in the building.”

Of an estimated 27,000 residents living in apartments and other forms of multi-family housing, EPB is only reaching 12,000 of those units, she said. In some cases, residents have insisted to their landlord that they receive EPB fiber, and the landlord has complied.

In other cases, residents just don’t see the need for it, she said.

“Just because you have the service in your home does not mean that you know what you want to do with it,” she said. “The digital divide is deeper than just a connection, it’s learning what you can do with it.”

For many people, the Internet is still a new thing, filled with credit card thieves and NSA spies.

“There are still people out there who are afraid of the Internet or don’t use email,” said John Pless, EPB spokesman.

Though EPB provides free Internet access at the Chattanooga Public Library, as well as through 16 community centers across the city, the utility says that it’s job is to provide access, not connectivity. It can lead a horse to water, but it can’t make it drink.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or esmith@timesfreepress.com with tips and documents.

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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