When EPB looked at ways to bring high-speed broadband to Chattanooga, it initially rejected Wi-Fi, the utility's Jim Ingraham told Gigabit Nation radio listeners on Wednesday.
"We are right in the middle of rolling hills and mountains, and our topography made building a citywide wireless network a pretty expensive endeavor," he said.
So EPB instead built a fiber-to-the-home network with the fastest speed in the nation.
Now Chattanooga's Mark Keil, chief information officer for the city, is busying himself taking broadband to the next level - by cutting the wires and taking broadband to the air.
He's already knee-deep in wire-free broadband, after receiving about $30 million in federal and state grants to build a citywide wireless mesh network designed to work on top of EPB's fiber-optic gigabit cable.
Now, he's considering a plan to turn on consumer Wi-Fi for free in certain areas, once he nails down exactly how much it will cost taxpayers.
"I'm going to do a test and turn on public access," he said. "I'm bringing geeks from around the city, trying to figure out where would be the best place just to turn it on."
His preliminary plan is to turn on free Wi-Fi in the corridor stretching from Jack's Alley to the Riverfront.
But contrary to popular belief, there's nothing free about free Wi-Fi. Keil said he has to be careful about where he activates access, because the city has to pay for data usage charges incurred in the process.
And the bill for that data could come out of city taxes. So he's being careful.
"I want to be innovative," he said. "I want to do more than just turn it on in the parks."
It's a popular idea with technologists, tourism officials and the general public, who would gain the ability to surf around the city at speeds greater than typical cellular speeds.
Bob Doak, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said allowing tourists to log onto the Internet via Wi-Fi "would be tremendous.
"When people are making choices about vacation, that could be the deciding factor," he said.
Free Wi-Fi in the tourist areas could give tourism officials the ability to communicate directly with the city's visitors through a login page, providing lists of that day's events or breaking news.
"We can then deliver information instantaneously, similar to what CNN does," Doak said.
Widespread Wi-Fi could also spur the creation of more mobile applications that take advantage of the greater bandwidth to deliver Chattanooga-specific experiences.
"Once they figure out the correct and fair way to monetize it, whether it's advertising or pay to use, they could find a way for the public to enjoy this piece of infrastructure," said Robert Phillips, executive director of the Chattanooga Technology Council.
For instance, Chattanooga-based Second Site is bringing what's known as "augmented reality" to touchscreen phones and tablet devices. Taylor McDonald, president and co-founder, said the program takes advantage of high-speed data to bring new layers of information to customers looking through their camera displays.
A customer standing in front of a historic building, in one instance, could see a pop-up message delivering more information about a pub around the corner or historic facts about the site. A museum visitor could look at a painting through their iPad, click on it, and see a video of the curator discussing the artist's motivations.
"This isn't something that we're working on, this is something that's already working," McDonald said.
OVERREACH IN PHILLY
Chattanooga won't be the first city to try offering municipal Wi-Fi, and it won't be the last. However, the idea of widespread Wi-Fi foundered in many cities as municipal early adopters fell victim to the unforeseen.
In Philadelphia, for instance, officials attempted a partnership with Internet service provider EarthLink, in which the company erected routers all over the city to help bridge the "digital divide" between rich and poor, said Joseph James, deputy chief information officer for Philadelphia.
"The idea was to have a network that would be available for people who would not be able to go with any type of broadband service," he said.
EarthLink charged $50 per month for most users and $10 for low-income users.
But EarthLink dropped out of the deal after the service was not widely adopted, and fees failed to pay for upkeep on the infrastructure. In addition, most residents using the network were already wealthy enough to own iPhones or computers, James said, which defeated the purpose.
Expenses ballooned when officials realized that in addition to providing cheap Internet access to the poor, they'd also have to provide the devices needed to access the Web.
"The new administration that came in in 2008 just didn't see that as a business that the city ought to be in, and, of course, EarthLink had already pulled out, so there was no longer a desire to use that," he said.
Since then, the city has pulled back the scope of the project to merely providing communication services for city departments, rather than the public at large - something Chattanooga already does.
It could take a change to Tennessee law before Chattanooga can make money off its Wi-Fi capabilities, however, according to Harold DePriest, president and chief executive officer of EPB.
"It would be frankly very very difficult to change the law," DePriest said. "The cable folks and AT&T don't want anybody poaching on their territory, as they see it."
He said it could take years before it would become financially and legally possible to provide widespread Wi-Fi.
Though DePriest would like to see Wi-Fi corridors and hot spots all over the city, "Cities have had a really hard time with the notion of blanketing the airwaves with Internet connectivity."
That's because while private companies like AT&T provide wireless "hot zones" for customers in areas such as New York's Times Square, in coffee shops and in bookstores, it doesn't have an incentive to provide a service everywhere that would cannibalize other profitable offerings.
One exception is in areas where there's cellular congestion, where Wi-Fi can act as a "bridge" for customers, said Cathy Lewandowski, spokeswoman for AT&T.
AT&T's hot zones are "primarily focused on providing outdoor Wi-Fi coverage in areas where we are consistently seeing high customer traffic and mobile data use," Lewandowski said.
But she added there are no plans to offer hot zones in Chattanooga.
Comcast also does not offer Wi-Fi services in Chattanooga, said Jim Weigert, vice president and general manager of Comcast's Chattanooga system.
The reason it's a legal gray area, according to Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson, is due to a legally "defined service area" that grants companies such as AT&T, Comcast and EPB specific regions and defines the capabilities they can offer.
Private companies are concerned about competing against taxpayer-subsidized businesses that can operate at a loss.
For-profit companies take the threat so seriously that they mounted a lengthy but ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge to EPB's right to build its fiber-optic gigabit network, arguing that it infringed on their service areas.
EPB won the day because it argued that it was providing a service not widely available, he said.
"We've had this convergence of technologies that did not exist when these things were drawn up years ago," Watson said. "It is an issue that we are keenly aware of, and we are discussing and debating and studying about the best approach so we don't put private entities at a competitive disadvantage, but at the same time we don't withhold advancing technologies from a public that's demanding [them]."
But the law only governs a charge-for-access method, according to Keil.
"There's no law stopping me from turning it on for free, and we've already got the network in place there," he said. "People are going to start screaming for it."