Gig city dreams

Gig city dreams

August 11th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Debbie Tien, CEO of finance technology startup Sisasa, talks about the company's mobile banking app targeted at young adults during the Gig Tank Demo Day on Aug. 6, 2013.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

More than two decades ago, some smart thinkers touted an idea to build an enormous aquarium here in Chattanooga and to use it to explain river ecology and bring tourists to southeast Tennessee.

Naysayers wrung their hands about the prospect of spending even one dime of taxpayer money on "a fish tank." They were the tea partiers of their day. Still, as loudly as they whined, the Tennessee Aquarium was built. And it transformed Chattanooga far beyond the potential even its supporters expected.

That's the same kind of potential Chattanooga's fiber optics - dubbed the Gig - offer. The Gig is short for the fiber system's gigabit-per-second Internet speed that already is drawing bright entrepreneurs who need massive speed and fiber infrastructure to develop tomorrow's applications for things we haven't even thought of yet.

Already, the fiber system makes possible the use of smart street lights, real-time air quality monitors and crime surveillance cameras. All this adds up to real money savings - now and over time.

Unlike the aquarium idea, the Gig was not easy to explain and envision.

Like the aquarium, it also immediately drew supporters, but also a handful of loud-mouthed naysayers.

And like the aquarium, the Gig will take time - years - to make a palpable difference in Chattanooga, which is now called by some, the Gig City.

The Gig actually is a local electricity infrastructure. It was built by EPB and financed with more than $111 million in federal stimulus money, and it already has become more than first envisioned.

It has saved money - especially local money. It has markedly shortened electrical outage times locally. Remember when the slightest wind knocked out our power for hours? Now the power blinks and is usually restored before you reach for the phone.

It should not be confused with the city's mesh program - or with other city programs such as wi-fi or the the Intelligent Traffic System (traffic lights). Those programs may, in places and at times, be plugged to the fiber system, but they are funded and operated separately and by the city, not EPB.

All of the programs - but especially the fiber system itself and all of the potential it has - cannot be perfected and developed overnight. And, as with any developing technology, some of it will simply have to be trial and error. Just a look at how it started shows this.

The Gig City developed after then-Mayor Bob Corker asked EPB to take over the city's struggling attempt at its own Metronet service a decade ago. EPB began developing a fiber network to strengthen its electricity grid, but ultimately developed a fiber optics Internet and cable TV system that boasts the fastest Internet service in the country and has customers to help pay for more development.

This week, the city held a Gig Tank - basically a pitch slam by smart people from all over the world - with applications and demonstrations aimed at winning private investors for tomorrow's commerce. Mayor Andy Berke welcomed them, and he and keynote speaker Bob Metcalf, inventor of the Ethernet, challenged them to find better ways for public information sharing.

"Do you all know what a MOOC is?" Metcalfe asked the crowd. "Massive open online courses," he told them. MOOCs use Gigspeed to make a classroom something global, and Metcalfe says fiber optics and massive open online courses will disrupt education in the same way email disrupted snail mail, and iTunes disrupted music and other Internet applications disrupted news-gathering and book publishing.

No, Chattanooga's foray into the Gig-citydom is not think-tank proven. No, it wasn't initially cheap for taxpayers.

Like the Tennessee Aquarium, it's a bit like "build it and they will come."

And, like the Aquarium, making it pay will take a little logic, a bit of faith, a small gamble and a lot of determination.

We've got it all.