Consider the wireless router.
It sits unnoticed, humming away in a home office or workplace, with only a few intermittent flashing lights to signal the fleet-footed forward march of data.
It's just a simple antenna in a plastic box that allows devices to pull data from the Internet without a wired cable connection, but those unassuming routers are about to become the centerpiece of Chattanooga's plan for the future.
Whether it's a stay-at-home mom streaming Pandora in her living room, UTC students watching YouTube in Fletcher Hall or a bank president ducking into Panera while uploading edits to a Powerpoint presentation, staying connected has become an American obsession - and WiFi hotspots have become a 21st century digital oasis.
But what about a citywide hotspot? Could Chattanooga and its surrounding environs become one, big wireless network?
City officials decided this year that they could when they green-lighted what they call a wireless mesh network.
Through about $30 million in federal and state grants, workers have already installed more than 220 wireless routers, or access points, throughout the city.
They're a lot bigger than the ones in homes and offices, and reach a lot farther too: about a half-mile.
But that's where the differences end, because the city chose a system that communicates on the same wireless standard - 802.11n - used in most modern cell phones, tablets and even video game consoles.
That's good news for businesses developing applications for the city to take advantage of the network, which can now test their products in a market with 170,000 potential users.
Whether it's Global Green Lighting transplanting its factory to Chattanooga from China to meet demand or increased orders for start-up business Secure Waters, pushing the bleeding edge of technologies could open up new markets.
In the future, as more workers take their activities outdoors to public gathering places, Chattanooga could become a virtual laboratory of business and municipal idea-sharing, said Robert Phillips, executive director of the Chattanooga Technology Council.
"There are places where they build laboratories in which the scientists are forced to bump into each other and have interaction instead of just staying in their own lab," Phillips said. "When you do that, you have better science. This will enable a lot more collaborations in that same way."
For now, city government plans to retain exclusive use of the network for municipal agencies as it tests it with applications including Navy SEAL-esque head-mounted cameras that feed live video to police headquarters, traffic lights that can be automatically adjusted at rush hour, and even water contamination sensors that call home if there's a problem beneath the surface of the Tennessee River.
Chattanooga officials have 600 outdoor routers in stock, and plan to smother Chattanooga's entire Homeland Security district in wireless coverage that's jacked into EPB's fiber-optic gigabit cable, according to Mark Keil, chief information officer for the city.
"We'll keep installing them until the funding runs out," Keil said.
With all that wireless coverage saturating the airwaves, Keil pressed city agencies to come up with a list of possible uses.
With hundreds of ideas in hand, including several that were prototyped immediately, he presented his plan to the Intelligent Community Forum, a New York-based think tank that recognized Chattanooga for its efforts.
"We put more emphasis on the applications, on what everybody wanted to do in their area," Keil said.
In addition to Chattanooga proper, East Ridge and Red Bank are also covered by the network, as is the Interstate 75 corridor between Chattanooga and Oak Ridge.
"They [Red Bank officials] didn't know how much of their area they were going to need to cover, so we showed them a map and 95 percent of Red Bank is already covered," Keil said.
The first initiative was to link streetlights to the WiFi network to allow them to be controlled remotely. Using LED technology currently being installed, officials can turn lights down to conserve energy in the early morning hours, or turn them up to 150 percent to deter troublemakers in an area.
Keil can also pulse the lights sequentially to indicate a disaster evacuation route or to lead emergency vehicles to the scene of an accident.
PIE IN THE SKY
And that's just one application.
Officials also have a traffic light system running that allows them to monitor traffic conditions and adjust the traffic lights accordingly.
They're looking at Aqua Sentinal, developed by Chattanooga-based Secure Waters, as a way to wirelessly check Chattanooga's drinking water supply for contamination.
Police have experimented using head-mounted cameras to record busts for evidence and training purposes. They're also experimenting with a device that uses a laser to digitally record every aspect of a crime scene in 3D, allowing investigators to fly through the scene in 3D to analyze clues they may have missed the first time around.
Officers can instantly download and print full color photos of suspects from their squad cars, or tap into the security camera network to check places they can't see from the road.
These aren't pie-in-the-sky ideas, they're already being tested, Keil said.
The best part, according to project manager Cory Wendts, is that these projects don't need a big, expensive control room to function. Any authorized user within the city's network can log in and check a security camera or verify that a lightbulb needs changing, he said. Furthermore, the system reports a malfunction with text messages and e-mails rather than a big blinking red light.
"There doesn't need to be anybody really monitoring it, because it just runs," Wendts said.
The goal for the city's wireless network is to make the entire city more efficient and sustainable, said David Crockett, director of Chattanooga's Office of Sustainability.
"The question is not just how we improve city services, but how do you make a business out of this," Crockett asked. "The fact that we can do this means this is a place where we can do training, education and have people do applications they can sell to other cities."
Paraphrasing legendary political consultant James Carville, Crockett sums up his philosophy as, "It's the applications, stupid."
The increased capabilities from those applications won't just be cool tricks like putting a camera on a dog, but will change the way people live, use energy and entertain themselves, he said.
Crockett sees micro-windmills on houses, and a mini-power plant in every home. If these advances result in cheap power, combined with pervasive wireless coverage, workers could do any task, anywhere.
But right now, he's starting with the little things.
In the meantime, some city leaders are looking forward to the day when Chattanooga will flip the switch and open its wireless network to ordinary citizens.
"There's some value in the fact that there's this piece of technology that helps us take care of our citizens better," said Phillips.