Aljazeera America, June 6, 2014
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Clay Posey is in the middle of developing a 3D printing business out of the premier local startup incubator Co.Lab. He works on his laptop in Co.Lab’s downtown storefront space, where he shares tables, a fridge and a support network with dozens of others who are looking to raise capital and test out their tech ideas.
Posey’s idea is to make anatomically correct models of hospital patients’ organs so doctors can plan out their surgeries before cutting into the real thing. The company is called 3DOps, and Posey says it couldn’t exist anywhere other than Chattanooga.
“There are companies that do what we do, but we can do it in hours and they can take weeks,” said Posey. “Anywhere else it would take a lot more time and a lot more money … Chattanooga is essential to our business model.”
That’s because Chattanooga is one of the only places on Earth where residents and businesses can access Internet at speeds as fast as 1 gigabit per second — about 50 times faster than the U.S. average. And because the government-regulated power utility runs the gigabit Internet here, the high speeds come at a price affordable to people like Posey.
Chattanooga’s Internet, named the Gig, has won the small, postindustrial city a host of accolades and attention from the tech industry, entrepreneurs and the press since it was started as part of a project to modernize the area’s electric grid by local power company EPB in 2009.
Politicians have credited the Gig with creating upward of 1,000 jobs in Chattanooga, and some have even wondered if Chattanooga could be the country’s next Silicon Valley.
Those claims and aspirations may be a bit bloated, but tech experts and Internet advocates say the Gig is nonetheless important. In an age of consolidation among Internet providers and coming changes to net neutrality which could let big cable corporations like Comcast charge more to reach certain parts of the Internet, supporters of the Gig say municipally run broadband can provide a counterbalance to increased corporate dominance.
Systems like the Gig might not be practical across the entire United States but its backers say it can at least set the bar for what Internet access could and look like in America for decades to come.
“Whenever a corporation like Comcast wants to do something like raise prices, we can point at Chattanooga and say, ‘Why can’t we have something like that?’” said Christopher Mitchell, the head of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “It establishes a baseline or at least an aspirational standard.”
On the ground in Chattanooga, the effects of the Gig are visible at nearly every corner. The city, once considered one of the most polluted and dangerous small cities in the nation, is now home to dozens of tech startups, venture capital firms, branding agencies and incubators, as well as the kinds of restaurants, coffee shops and bars that usually follow the young and monied.
Comcast has attempted to block EPB’s expansion twice, suing the company by saying EPB illegally subsidized its Internet service with money obtained through its electricity service. Those suits have been dismissed, but EPB is still facing an uphill battle from state lawmakers in its quest to expand service to customers just outside the Chattanooga city line.
The company has also faced a PR blitz when Comcast ran hundreds of ads in Chattanooga trying to persuade its customers to stay with the company or switch back from EPB.
The challenges faced by EPB might be a sign of things to come for other small, local Internet providers: By some counts, as many as 20 states already have restrictions on municipalities stepping into the broadband game.
Still, dozens of smaller communities, from Springfield, Missouri, to Burlington, Vermont have started offering municipally run broadband.
Municipal Internet supporters say providers like EPB can provide prevent the Internet market from becoming less competitive, which could cause speeds to decrease and prices to increase for many consumers.
“Chattanooga isn’t going to disrupt the whole business model, but the established players do have to look out,” said Co.Lab’s executive director, Mike Bradshaw. “They are going to have to rise to the challenge. And I think if you give the incumbents a higher bar, they’re going to reach for it.”