The Line, July 18, 2012
Here’s the pop quiz for today–If you wanted to use your garage for a high-tech startup, one that was going to require a gig of connectivity, where would be the best possible place for that garage to be located? Silicon Valley? Raleigh-Durham’s Research Triangle? The Twin Cities?
Wrong, wrong and wrong. The fastest, cheapest, and most reliable broadband service in the U.S., the kind that high-tech companies demand, is currently located in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The reason, says Christopher Mitchell, Director, Telecommunications as Commons Initiative, is that the Tennessee town made a commitment to building a publically owned fiber network back in the 1990s, and eventually became the first place in the country to offer everyone in the community access to the much-sought-after “gig,” the ultra-high-speed 1Gbps network connection.
Bridging the Divide
Mitchell works for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), a 20-year-old nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis. The institute recently released a report, Broadband at the Speed of Light, that details how Chattanooga and two other cities–Lafayette, Louisiana and Bristol, Virginia–were able to build their own citywide cable and fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks. The cities are three examples from more than 150 communities nationwide which have battled taxpayer skepticism and opposition by telephone and cable companies to create municipally owned broadband networks.
These networks, says Mitchell, are far superior to Twin Cities’ systems in price, speed, and reliability. They are also a positive step forward in closing what experts refer to as the “digital divide,” which, according to the Federal Communications Commission, means that 65 percent of all Americans have broadband access at home, but, in households with less than $20,000 in annual income, only 40 percent do. Nationwide, half of all Hispanics and 41 percent of African-American homes lack broadband.
More than Movie Downloads
If you’re thinking that the only benefit to ultra-high-speed broadband is that you’ll be able to download the newest blockbuster movie faster, you’re missing the bigger picture, Mitchell says. Broadband is increasingly becoming one of the infrastructure requirements that help attract and retain “creative-class” talent to metropolitan areas. In the course of interviewing subjects for his study, Mitchell met people in Chattanooga who moved there instead of Silicon Valley, motivated by the high quality and low cost of the broadband connection.
In a community approaching half a million in population, city officials report that in the three years since fiber launched, Chattanooga has added 4,800 jobs and $1.3 billion in capital investment from advanced manufacturing, telecommunications, and technology-oriented companies. “Businesses have moved from Knoxville, which is 100 miles away, because the cost for broadband is eight times lower in Chattanooga,” Mitchell says.
“Lay a Lot of Fiber”
Asked what he’d do if he were suddenly given the power to mandate action in the broadband sector, Mitchell chuckles. “Since I’m from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I suppose I wouldn’t make any arbitrary decisions, but I’d start up some conversations with citizens and businesses. And I’d want to do something around antitrust about the cable companies, which have agreed to carve up the market and block additional competition.”
After that? “I’d start laying a lot of fiber, right away,” Mitchell says.