One of the world's biggest radio networks highlighted Chattanooga over the weekend as a city that "is pioneering everyone's future."
In a 27-minute broadcast billed as "Chattanooga — the High Speed City," the BBC's Global Business report said Chattanooga's high-speed, citywide internet service has helped turn around an aging and dirty industrial town into a high-tech magnet for businesses around the globe. BBC journalist Peter Day visited Chattanooga and aired interviews with a half dozen businesses and community leaders during the global broadcast, which first aired in London on Sunday.
"All over the world, the Internet has unleashed an extraordinary appetite for using data, which can only be satisfied with more and more bandwidth and faster and faster connectivity," Day said. "It's bound to come everywhere eventually. In other words, Chattanooga is pioneering everyone's future."
Day said Chattanooga has been "super charged" by its high-speed internet and the attention and startup businesses that has attracted.
"Chattanooga seems to be becoming a cluster of new startup activity where businesses set up and test their products and services," he said.
With the background music of Glenn Miller's 1942 big band hit "Chattanooga Choo Choo" playing in the background, Day said Chattanooga transformed itself from a river and railroad connection into America's first "Gig City" by embracing a new kind of interconnectivity — the internet.
"And not just any internet," he said.
Day said he was surprised that the world's fastest internet connections "weren't introduced by a giant, international telecom" but instead came from the local, municipally owned electricity company, EPB.
In 2010, Chattanooga became the first city to offer community-wide 1-gigabit-per-second internet speeds to all homes and businesses. Last year, EPB upped its internet speeds to 10 gigabits per second available to any of the more than 170,000 homes and businesses served by EPB in the Chattanooga area.
The $320 million fiber optic service — about a third of which was funded by a federal stimulus grant — was an outgrowth of EPB's electric system and the utility's efforts to have better connections and control, or a so-called smart grid, for its power connections. In the process, EPB gained speed-of-light connections for other services to every home and business.
Although only about 7,000 of Hamilton County's 354,098 residents have signed up for the Gig service so far — and only a few for 10 Gig connections — a number of local businesses are embracing the technology.
"The entrepreneurial landscape has just exploded," Kathryn Menchetti, director of Small Business and Entrepreneurship at the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Business Development Center, told the BBC. "I've seen a lot of fantastic tech companies come through our doors — they're coming from everywhere."
Day talked with the founders of Ambition, Branch Technology, 3-D Ops and Feetz to show how the Gig helped their startup ventures. Although Feetz left Chattanooga to find more talent in Silicon Valley, founder Lucy Beard did tell the BBC that her business couldn't have been started anywhere else.
Dr. Bruce Hilbert, a self-described "geek in residence" at the 3-D design and printing business Branch Technology, said EPB's Gig service is helping attract new ideas and capital to the city.
"I remember when this was a place where you did not particularly want to live," said Hilbert, a Chattanooga native. "It was not a place for innovation and it was a dirty city. It has completely transformed across the years of my life into this wonderful, vibrant, intellectual community."
Travis Truett, founder of Ambition, which moved from California to Chattanooga to build its sales network business, calls EPB's Gig service "a beacon for Chattanooga.
"It shows that the city and everything around it is willing to invest in the future," Truett said. "It's one of those things that in 10 or 15 years you'll be able to look back and say, "one of the biggest things that Chattanooga did to help itself was to put in this network."
Dr. Jim Busch, a Chattanooga radiologist, estimates the faster download speed for reading medical images is equivalent to two weeks of time every year. Busch, who says he may be the first American with 10 gigabit-per-second service in his home, said the faster links keep him better focused on reading multiple medical images at the same time. He said such internet speed will soon become even more vital as more 3-dimensional imaging is brought into the medical field.
Andrew Rogers, technologist at the Enterprise Center in Chattanooga, demonstrated the download of an 8-gigabit game on EPB's high-speed internet in two minutes for a game that would normally take two hours and 21 minutes to download with conventional bandwidth.
The BBC highlighted how EPB's Gig service allowed T-Bone Burnett, a Grammy Award winner, to play live from a Los Angeles studio with Chuck Mead, a founder of the band BR549, who was on stage in Chattanooga.
"Two musicians some 3,000 kilometers apart can play together with no delay, no latency, as the tech people call it," Day said.
Nonetheless, the BBC report acknowledged that for all its publicity, the Gig service still isn't used by many people and until it is, some of the advantages of the new technology will remain isolated. Day said more cities have to match Chattanooga's high-speed internet speed for Gig service to be fully realized.
"It's kind of symbolic here until it gets hooked up," he said. "It's all very good for a city to charge ahead with high-speed bandwidth, but it's just an island until it is hooked up with millions of other high-speed users elsewhere."
But Lindsey Frost, program director for the Mozilla Foundation in Chattanooga, says Chattanooga and Kansas City, Mo., where Google is building out a high-speed internet service "are the pioneering Gigabit cities" in America.
And Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said the gigabit service has helped bring hope to his hometown.
"The city that I grew up in in the mid 1980s was dying," Berke told the BBC. "We held on to our past for too long. We're now the best at something, and that's really important for a community. When you are the best, that changes how you look at things and allows you to take advantage of utilizing your resources. Chattanooga was a community that didn't have a tech community."
But Berke, who helped create a downtown Innovation District last year, says Chattanooga now has a growing tech community he hopes will continue to expand using EPB's high-speed internet links.
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6340.