In the race for Internet speed, Chattanooga claimed the nation's fastest broadband service Monday when EPB launched America's first gigabit broadband service.
The new Internet link is more than 200 times faster than the average web connection speed in the United States and could give the Scenic City an edge in growing and recruiting data-based businesses.
"We're setting a standard that most of the world won't catch up to for probably another 10 years," Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said during an announcement of the new service at EPB headquarters.
EPB officials acknowledge there isn't much, if any, demand yet for such Internet speeds. The $350-a-month initial price for the service is unlikely to immediately attract any of the more than 100,000 homes EPB now serves with its fiber optic connections.
"Those that say there is no demand for this service right now are absolutely right, but they won't be for long," EPB President Harold DePriest said. "We're already seeing businesses use a huge amount of bandwidth and as this service becomes available we're going to see the demand for speed continue to grow."
As the first U.S. city to achieve the gigabit speed mark, Chattanooga gains the bragging rights as the fastest city on the Information Highway - a claim that local officials hope will entice more data, video and technology companies to consider locating in the Scenic City.
"We can never overestimate the amount of bandwidth that will be needed in the future," said jon Kinsey, a Chattanooga developer and former mayor who is working with local entrepreneurs to study ways to capitalize on the faster broadband service. "What EPB has set up gives us an opportunity as a community to get into a whole new realm of business growth."
Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Federation, said there probably is too little demand for gigabit service today for the telephone or cable television giants to pursue the expense of gigabit service."
"Chattanooga definitely is ahead of the curve," Atkinson said. "It's like they are building a 16-lane highway when there is a demand for only four at this point. The private companies probably can't afford to get that far ahead of the market."
STIMULUS ADDS FIBER TO EPB DIET
EPB can afford the faster connection because the utility's new video, phone and Internet services are being built on fiber-optic lines being laid across its 600-square-mile territory for the utility's electricity grid.
The city-owned utility borrowed $220 million two years ago to pay for a smart electricity grid built on new fiber-optic lines throughout the city. Those costs are being paid by nearly 170,000 electricity customers of EPB, which is installing smart meters on homes and businesses over the next couple of years.
The smart grid and smart meters allow EPB to remotely read customer meters on a continuous basis and better control its electric service.
EPB's plans were expedited and expanded last year when the utility landed a $111 million federal stimulus grant for smart meters. The stimulus funds are not being used directly on the faster broadband service, which EPB sells in competition with Comcast cable service and AT&T's U-verse Internet protocol TV.
With virtually unlimited capacity, those same fiber-optic lines also allow EPB to offer television, telephone and Internet services in competition with cable TV and telephone companies in the area. But because EPB is building a network with fiber-optic connections all the way to the home, the utility is able to offer far faster connections than the copper wire or older cable connections used by AT&T, Comcast and others.
REACHING THE GIGABIT MARK
DePriest said EPB built its fiber-optic network to handle a gigabit-per-second service and a new device developed by Alcatel-Lucent - called an 0221H ONT - now allows EPB to boost its speed cap from 150 megabits per second to the first gigabit-per-second service in any U.S. city. Only Hong Kong and a few cities in Europe can now match that speed, DePriest said.
Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said Chattanooga's municipal utility has done what hundreds of cities wanted Google to do when the computer giant offered to bring gigabit service to some U.S. community.
"Earlier this year, Google announced they were going to build a 1 Gbps network and several of the largest telecom companies in the country laughed at them, saying it was too difficult," Mitchell said. "Almost one year later, Chattanooga has built such a network before Google decided with whom to partner."
Mitchell said with EPB's announcement, entrepreneurs in rural Tennessee "will pay far less for far greater speeds than even those in Silicon Valley."
EPB Chairman Joe Ferguson said faster broadband service "is going to be the base of the technology advances of the future" and allow companies to locate outside of more expensive cities.
Last week, HomeServe USA announced plans to locate a 140-employee call center in Chattanooga, in part due to Chattanooga's faster broadband service.
"They told us we probably have more Internet fire power in a home in Chattanooga than they have in their whole operation in Miami," Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey said.
Ramsey said the faster Internet links from EPB should not only attract more technology companies to Chattanooga but also aid in long-distance learning programs in the schools and remote medical services in the area.
Dr. James Busch, one of 10 physicians with Diagnostic Radiology Consultants and head of Specialty Networks, LLC in Chattanooga, said faster Internet links will allow for more remote reading of increasingly detailed medical images.
Busch said his company already uses the 100 megabit service from EPB to help handle nearly 8 million medical images a year "and we definitely would be interested" in the new gigabit service. The faster service allows radiologists, pathologists and other diagnostic physicians to quickly assess a patient's MRI or other images remotely from anywhere with fast broadband service.
"This allows us to practice better medicine and save on the costs of medical care," Busch said.
Robert Philips, executive director of the Chattanooga Technology Council, said Chattanoogans need to identify ways EPB's faster service can be utilized.
"Just like with smart phones, we need to find 'the killer apps' that will capitalize on this capability," Philips said.
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/chattreporter.