Nation's fastest Internet sparks interest

"Why can't New York City get that? Maybe I should move to Tennessee," joked Bloomberg reporter Matt Miller during a recent television interview with EPB's Harold DePriest and Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey.

Joke or not, that's exactly the reaction DePriest and Ramsey hoped to provoke when they revealed last month that the EPB would offer a gigabit of bandwidth to Hamilton County businesses and consumers through its fiber-optic network, they said.

"While the country has the goal of having this in place within 10 years, this is in place [in Chattanooga] right now and at speeds 10 times the country's goal," Ramsey said.

Having access to a gigabit, or the ability to download roughly 23 songs from iTunes in one second, gives Chattanooga businesses and consumers the fastest Internet in the nation, and the nation noticed.

Searching for "gigabit" on Google after the announcement revealed 298 news articles about Chattanooga's milestone, and more than 9 million Twitter impressions within 48 hours, according to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

Google itself plans to install a gigabit network in one of 1,100 cities, but hasn't yet narrowed down the site or started to lay fiber, according to Google's Dan Martin. The delay gives Chattanooga a comfortable lead over rival cities in attracting bandwidth-hungry businesses like recent arrival HomeServe, which just hired 140 employees for a call center.

Felipe Espinosa, director of IT infrastructure for HomeServe, said Chattanooga's speedy Internet was "one of the reasons" the company decided to open its data-intensive facility here.

"Having those components in place sealed the deal," he said.

Part of Espinosa's job at the new facility is to set up digital connections with HomeServe's operations in Miami, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

"This network will be so fast that it will be like we're right next door," said Espinosa.

Another reason Espinosa said the company chose Chattanooga was the city's smart grid, which is necessary to provide reliable power for a data center.

EPB said its smart grid can instantly re-route power in case of problems, restoring service in seconds rather than hours.

"Chattanooga is also going to be our secondary data center where a copy of all of our systems will be stored, so it will be a hot data center for business continuity and disaster recovery," Espinosa said.

Scoring a data center is a coup for Chattanooga, as these are highly sought after by cities and involve a number of high-paying jobs, according to several city leaders.

Diagnostic Radiology Consultants is also jumping on EPB's gigabit technology.

Dr. James Busch, director of informatics, publicly stated even before EPB's gigabit service was available that he would sign up for the service when it was ready.

The company needs as much speed as it can get, because the radiologists constantly upload and download high-resolution images of the human body from over a dozen Tennessee and Georgia clinics and hospitals, he said.

Now Busch is following through, trying to get ahead of what he calls this century's "land grab."

"The bandwidth is a huge part of the practice because each one of these images is huge, about 300 megs," Busch said.

With DRC's outgoing server uploading information at a gigabit, the nearly 700 doctors who use his service will be able to quickly access body scans anytime, from any computer, instead of on the more limited point to point networks many clinics and hospitals currently use.

The increase in speed and bandwidth doesn't just save him time and money, it could move the company toward becoming a "content provider," he said, drastically expanding the scope of operations.

"If you're out getting groceries and you're on call, and if it's a critical finding, the 15 minutes it takes you to get back to work can be the difference between life and death," Busch said. "You could theoretically interpret the image right there in Bi-Lo, but you have to have that outbound bandwidth available."

Tricycle, a design company that creates high-resolution digital carpet samples for the carpet industry, will consider upgrading to a gigabit within the next "six to 12 months," said Matthew Butt, Tricycle's US development manager.

Besides creating and sending high-resolution images on a daily basis, the company also hosts content for clients, "and we constantly push content to those websites," Butt said.

Instead of using a physical piece of carpet to potential buyers, customers can print out a realistic carpet sample, or view it online in the context of their own home or business, which is faster and cheaper for carpet companies.

"We're definitely on the high end of our capabilities here, we're using a lot of bandwidth," he said.

Customers have already started demanding more streaming media and other high resolution content, he said, "so there is a need for increased bandwidth."

The Future

Lightning-fast speeds combined with EPB's reliable smart grid power delivery could have a variety of uses down the road, DePriest said, though the payoff could be years away in some cases.

"We're saying, if we can provide a gig anywhere in our 600-square mile service area, we can do anything you need for your business," DePriest said.

Some of these broadly defined uses include turning the company's network of 500,000 possible gigabit users into a testbed for smart devices, attracting server farms and high-tech start-ups, helping insurance companies and hospitals centralize and organize millions of records, or enabling engineering, creative or marketing firms to send huge amounts of data anywhere in the world.

"We'll see high tech businesses coming here because we have an atmosphere of entrepreneurial spirit, and we've got good city and county leadership who seem to get up every morning thinking about how to create jobs," DePriest said.

Former Mayor Jon Kinsey is leading a Lyndhurst Foundation-funded effort to capitalize on Chattanooga's new high-speed Internet capacity.

"The first step was to get people's attention and that has certainly gone very well," he said.

More than 10 million Twitter messages about the new service were read by subscribers last month and more than 350 online and print news stories have appeared about Chattanooga's breakthrough.

"Anything that has to do with video, animation and gaming would benefit and those are industries that typically have people scattered all over the world," Kinsey said. "That is certainly an opportunity we have by being the first in the country to get this gigabit speed."

Regardless of whether Chattanooga sees an immediate explosion in business growth, the increase in conventions and tourism should be noticeable, said Bob Doak, president of the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"People want to come to the areas that are on the cusp of technology," Doak said.

From medical conventions to video game enthusiasts, "having that much broadband gives us an edge of our competition," Doak said, and he's already positioning Chattanooga as a destination for groups with a need for speed.

Doak is working with the convention center and hotels to ensure that out of town visitors have access to the nation's fastest Internet both inside the convention hall and back at their bedroom, he said.

"Most places, you can maybe get that much bandwidth in just one place, now these people can get a gigabit anyplace in Chattanooga," Doak said.


While the word "unlikely" has emerged as a popular adjective to describe Chattanooga as the first city to have a gigabit of bandwidth widely available, Doak said it "shouldn't be surprising" that Chattanooga has become a leader.

"It's not a surprise with the talent we've got in this city," Doak said. "I think we have a pretty rich history of entrepreneurship and being out in front of a lot of things throughout the centuries."

The story of how Chattanooga pulled itself out of the fading industrial landscape of the 1960s continues to be an inspiration for the city's innovators, he said, and remains a case study for many other cities to this day.

Even so, "it takes a lot more than a news story and a couple of tweets to get people to pull up and move here," said Marston.

The Chamber is reaching out to a number of industries and having strategic and intentional conversations with a number of companies that might have potential interest, he said. But, attracting new businesses will be a process measured in years, not days, Marston said.

The effort to win the hearts and minds of businesses in order to create more jobs in Chattanooga is "something there's not a rulebook for," he said.

"Being the first gives us an advantages, but it also means we can't steal best practices from other people," he added. "This is very much a work in progress."

Concerns cited

Though the immediate windfall is important, preparing for the day when most consumers are surfing on a gigabit is also a concern, said Marston.

In the past, demand for higher resolution content has increased in line with consumer capacity, he said.

"It's somewhat comparable to the first city that ever got electric power, when people said, 'Hey I can read for a couple extra hours in the evening without using a kerosene lamp,'" Marston said, "But what they didn't envision was television or air conditioning, innovations that were built on that platform."

The Tennessee Aquarium has already taken several steps to prepare for increased demand for streaming HD content, said Thom Benson, communications manager for the Aquarium.

The Chattanooga landmark has already set up two webcams to stream live images of aquatic life to the Aquarium's online visitors, and one HD camera to observe weather conditions outside. All three cameras will be available on the website, he said, and are part of a push to provide content not available elsewhere.

The new "secret reef" HD webcam, which will be functional within weeks, will "help connect our inland residents with the ocean," Benson said, with streaming images of sharks, turtles and tank divers throughout the day.

As mega-broadband speeds become available to more customers, Benson expects that the Aquarium will continue to add more live, streaming HD content for those who want more. In addition, he said plans were underway for the Aquarium add "up to one gig."

Along with the "webisodes" Benson's team uploaded to YouTube chronicling the birth of Chattanooga's penguin chicks, the Aquarium's foray into live HD streaming is just a taste of what is to come, said EPB's DePriest.

Though he calls it a "pipe dream," the ability to effortlessly stream HD video could eventually attract Hollywood animation studios, many of which have relocated to Atlanta in recent years, he said.

And Atlanta's not that far from Chattanooga, he added.

"Chattanooga today has the whole package. We've got rivers, growth coming from Volkswagen, and this fiber system," he said. "It's about a lot more than just streaming video."

Lacie Newton, EPB spokeswoman, said businesses interested in expanding their bandwidth to a gigabit must need to call EPB directly to discuss how much bandwidth the business will use and how many employees will use the Internet.

Pricing will fluctuate with usage, Newton said.