Chattanooga needs to engage entrepreneurs to invent a killer app to fully realize the economic benefit of the city's lead in the global race for the fastest Internet, experts told city leaders on Monday.
The city-owned utility, EPB, handily beat Google and the rest of the U.S. in the race to build infrastructure capable of supporting Internet speeds of 1 gigabit-per-second in September.
As a result, Chattanooga came close to winning the New York-based Intelligent Community Forum's top honor for its "killer app."
City government's chief information officer, Mark Keil, said the city is using the high-speed Internet link for more than 50 ideas to "connect anything, anywhere." But most of those applications are designed to improve city services instead of serving up the next disruptive idea.
For the next big idea, panelists at the Chattanooga Convergence conference agreed, educated young entrepreneurs and adventurous investors are needed in large numbers.
To that end, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce Vice President J.Ed. Marston said city leaders have been "carrying out a very aggressive public relations campaign" about the city's gigabit service, primarily through non-traditional media.
"There is an effort to do something pretty darn significant in that space, at some of the most technologically progressive colleges around the country," he said.
Spearheading the effort is Lamp Post Lab, a venture backed by EPB, Lyndhurst and the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund designed to attract top talent to the city.
Jack Studer, partner at Lamp Post, said the group is offering a $50,000 prize to the college student who can best answer the question, "What would you do with a gig?"
"We are reaching out to people across the country at places like Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, MIT and local colleges like Georgia Tech and Duke," Studer said.
The winner receives $50,000 and gets put up in Chattanooga for the summer to develop their idea. But anyone who is accepted into the program gets their room and board paid up for the summer, he said.
Planners hope that "some of these really smart kids across the country eventually start companies" in Chattanooga.
Lamp Post is expecting 10 to 15 applicants this year and more next year.
So far, EPB has 12 residential and 14 business users of gigabit service, according to EPB communications manager Danna Bailey.
But the time in which the city maintains its gigabit lead is coming to an end.
Google spokesman Matt Dunne wrote on a company blog that the tech giant is still working to finish its own gigabit installation in Kansas City by 2012, with advance sign-ups available in the fourth quarter of 2011.
However, Google's timeframe could be an overly optimistic assessment, Lamp Post's Studer said, and no one knows if Google will allow open development on its network.
"Even if Google hits all of their deadlines and knocks it out of the park in 18 months, Chattanooga will still be one of two testbeds in the country where you can do anything," he said.
EPB competitor AT&T has long offered gigabit and higher speeds to businesses, but at prices and with installations that put them out of reach of most residential customers. Some experts believe that new 4G wireless speeds announced by AT&T and its competitors could lead in time to the bypassing of traditional broadband in favor of wireless.
Comcast, another competitor in Chattanooga to EPB, demonstrated the company's ability to bond 32 traditional channels to deliver a gigabit connection on June 16 in Chicago, though there's no word on when those speeds would be available to the public.
Chattanooga is currently the only municipality with citywide gigabit Internet, but its economic advantage won't last forever without developers to push the technology, said Curtis Johnson, presidents of think tank Citistates Group.
Johnson was among nearly two dozen city, academic and nonprofit scholars from around the country who came to Chattanooga for a three-day meeting on urban planning and changes.
Referring to the days when Chattanooga motorists were required to keep their headlights on to penetrate the dense pollution in the city, Johnson said "that fog has lifted, but a new fog has set in."
"It's saturated with 21st-century uncertainties," he said.
But for Harold DePriest, head of EPB, the future is clearer.
"Anytime I walk into a church, the first thing I do is look for young people, because if there are no young people, the church is in decline," DePriest said. "We've got plenty of young people, so we know we're going to grow. I think our good old days are well ahead of us in the future."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com or 423-757-6315.