States, stand down! Let community broadband innovate.

CHATTANOOGA, TN - JULY 30:  President Obama makes a speech about the economy and jobs at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee on July 30, 2013.  Amazon announced this week that it expected to have 7,000 job openings across the country.  (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

In 2010, Chattanooga, Tennesee public utility EPB sent ripples through the broadband world when it announced the first U.S. citywide network to deliver gigabit internet access speed. This week EPB, along with Wilson, North Carolina, sent waves through the broadband and political worlds when they petitioned the FCC to intercede against state intrusion into their ability to deliver gigabit services to other communities.

Tennessee, along with 18 other states, has a telco/cableco-influenced law prohibiting public utilities from offering broadband services outside of the area covered by their utility service. However, EPB is besieged with requests from surrounding communities for their gigabit and other high-end services that the same large providers can’t or won’t offer. It wants to provide services and has now asked the FCC to overrule state laws so it may do so.

Chattanooga’s and Wilson’s actions moved what have been individual battles into a national showdown as Congress now jumps in to intercept the FCC’s intersession. While incumbents’ legislative allies paint the FCC as stepping on states’ rights, community broadband advocates seek protection from anti-competition laws that stifle economic development and local innovation.

One main motivation that drives communities nationwide to cheer on Chattanooga and Wilson is the economic development impact these networks deliver, as proven by many of the 400 communities with public networks. “At EPB, we believe that high-speed Internet is critical infrastructure [that] gives citizens and businesses the opportunity to fully participate in – and to lead – our emerging knowledge economy,” said Harold DePriest, EPB’s President and CEO. Equally compelling is the ability of these networks to transform communities into innovation centers.

Innovation key element of community broadband business case

Creating “Smart Cities” is a concept taking hold in rural and urban communities. An IDC report states these are cities investing in technology such as broadband networks and analytics software to enable people to be more productive, use city infrastructure more efficiently, and receive better government services. Innovation for them is defined by quality of life improvements that attract and retain individuals and businesses while making a positive impact on local government budgets.


Dubuque, Iowa, with a population of 58,000, has is using its city-owned fiber to make great strides and becoming a smart city, but they are bumping up against the limits of their network and the lack of sufficient services from giant providers. City government officials created four apps to monitor various data related to water use, electricity use, transit patterns and waste recycling efforts. “Our goal during the pilot project for each app was to determine which pieces of technology were good for educating citizens and implementing behavior changes that they control based on the data these applications provide,” states Cori Burbach, City of Dubuque Sustainability Coordinator.

As people saw the initial data gathered by the apps, they began making changes to their usage patterns of these four services that saved them money or made better use of the services. Residents qualified for cash incentives with they repaired water leaks the software uncovered. Underserved communities provided models in recycling efficiencies that were carried over to other communities. The city totally changed its public transit routes. “When you measure you can make good decisions across total populations,” observes Chris Kohlman, the city’s Information Services Director. “But you have to have widespread high-speed internet access to move that much collective data.”

Another type of innovation that’s drawing people to fight states’ intrusion into local broadband decisions is creating new innovative companies. HackerLab is a hacker space in downtown Sacramento, California’s capital. AT&T is the largest provider there and has little competition to force it to lower prices or faster services for companies such as HackerLab. Consolidated, an ISP battling to establish itself in town, is bringing a gigabit connection to HackerLab.

HackerLab creates a steady steam of entrepreneurs

HackerLab creates a steady steam of entrepreneurs

“Ours is an innovation center and a pretty big deal for Sacramento because we have created a significant number of entrepreneurs,” says Gina Lujan, HackerLab CEO and founder. “We expect the gig connection to accelerate business attraction plus enable civic projects involving big data that can improve state agencies’ operations.” A community gigabit network would bring the competition and speed necessary to replicate HackerLab’s success throughout the city and region.

Bringing the fight to limit state intrusion home

A network of libraries being created is viewed as potential force within communities that drives innovative delivery of Internet services. The Gigabit Libraries Network (GLN) last week released an interactive map of libraries that shows how incorporating TV white space technology can increase availability, convenience and speed of Wi-Fi access at tens of thousands of new community hotspots. GLN has launched pilot projects in Paonia, Colorado and Pascagoula, Michigan, and is creating a roadmap for other communities to follow.


A summer of hard work and innovation distilled to a short presentation on Demo Day

Chattanooga is a gig city poster kid for community-driven innovation. As the city puts pressure on the FCC to counter state intrusion, this week it hosts its annual testament to the power of local innovation, GigTANK Demo Day. Hundreds of investors, marketing executives, journalists and techies will gather to review, assess and likely invest in some of the 11 entrepreneur teams that have worked all summer to produce next-generation gig apps.

Broadband advocates expect the drive to prevent state intrusion into local decisions to increase that each local community, as this is a true free-market imperative. Don Means, Principal at Digital Village Associates sums it up. “Every community should be allowed to take responsibility to create its own comprehensive broadband development strategy, employing whatever combination of business models and technologies that produce effective solutions.”

Craig Settles is a consultant who helps organizations develop broadband strategies, host of radio talk show Gigabit Nation and a broadband industry analyst. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) or via his blog.

Updated: this story was corrected on July 28 to change the date the EPB network began operating. It was 2010 not 2011.

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