Why Chattanooga Represents Broadband’s Future

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EPB stakeholder meeting

“Chattanooga is what the Internet will look like in 10 years. We’re 10 times faster 10 years sooner than the goals established in the National Broadband Plan.”  Harold DePriest, President – EPB.

Last September, Chattanooga, Tenn.’s public utility (EPB) announced the first gigabit broadband service in the U.S. To fully grasp the economic power of true broadband, community leaders and broadband champions need look under the hood to get the inside scoop. Luckily, over 130 community-owned fiber networks besides EPB’s are pumping out great service, including Pulaski, Tenn., Powell, Wyo. and Santa Monica, Calif. This month, I did a broadband site visit to Chattanooga to see the future unfolding there firsthand. Check out what I found!

The Grid Rocks!

Since launching their network, the smart grid application is paying dividends. Gigabit speed is enabling EPB to rapidly deploy intelligent switches that instantly re-route electricity on the grid so homes and businesses experience much shorter outages when natural disaster strikes. After eight tornadoes touched down in one day in Chattanooga recently, the smart grid saved 730,000 outage minutes. This grid is so smart that in some cases it detects problems even before they even occur. “We expect big potential economic gains here,” said one EPB official. “Just a brief flicker in service can cost Chattanooga businesses collectively a million dollars. Reliable electricity is a key factor in businesses deciding to move here.”

Survivor Meets Gigabit City

Co.Lab is a business incubator that provides start-ups with resources from advice and workspace to valuable business connections. One major resource is its 48Hour Launch, a pressure-cooker weekend in which over a dozen would-be Steve Jobs compete to see who can create the most viable business.

Harold DePriest, President of EPB (left) and Craig Settles

On a Friday last month, over 200 marketing executives, developers, financial experts and general business managers gathered in an abandoned building to listen to 21 entrepreneurs with various tech product demos explain why they were potentially the next Microsoft (s msft). Potential mentors in other states video-conferenced into the event. EPB had wired the building with a separate fiber line and wireless access points.

Those entrepreneurs who gave a great two-minute presentation made the first cut. The rest either sat on the sidelines or joined a surviving company. In another weeding-out process that night, anyone sitting in the audience could join with an entrepreneur to create a management team. Those who couldn’t build a team were eliminated from competition, leaving 10 hopefuls. Working non-stop from Friday to Sunday night, these teams built their products and business plans. The products were mainly web-based or mobile applications, so everything was done online by teams in the building along with those connected remotely: programming, buildouts, trials, research, business and financial modeling and of course, consulting.

On Sunday night, the teams presented their businesses and management teams to an on-site panel of investors and entrepreneurs. The event was web-cast live. Several days later, two of the teams were in serious negotiations with investors, and one was offered a term sheet. The entire event couldn’t have happened as it did without the network.

Incubating a Local Industry

According to the Entertainment Software Association, U.S. computer and video game software sales generated $10.5 billion in 2009. Chattanooga aims to grab a piece of that action by creating a mini gaming industry ecosystem. EPB’s network will be the digital glue holding together the process of creating a digital game.

The city recently conducted a proof of concept when several dozen gamers collectively accessed the digital infrastructure built into a downtown theater to show the potential for linking this group via EPB’s network to theaters in other cities. This event also gave gaming industry representatives a preview of what happens if developers, animators and consumers are all linked via the network to the production, marketing and use of gaming products regardless of individuals’ physical location in Chattanooga. Chattanooga State Community College started a gaming degree program last fall. EPB’s network will be the digital engine driving the process from creating and refining the human capital to facilitating the technology and business elements vital to this industry.

Fleshing out Gigabit Success

Is tech company incubator Lamppost grooming the next Facebook?

Whereas incubators such as CoLab take someone with an idea and creates the skeleton of a future company or product, Lamppost Group puts the meat on the bones. It provides angel investments, facilities and a strong push out into the market.

Lamppost is recruiting 15 students from prestigious colleges nationwide for a special build-a-gigabit-app summer internship. The intern with the best app wins $50,000 from Lamppost. Interns also receive training and mentoring in eight core business skills, including sales, marketing, prototyping and design. All interns with good ideas can maintain their network accounts and relationships with Lamppost. The company and city undoubtedly will welcome them back after graduation.

Muni Wireless Comes Full Circle

Using its gigabit network for backhaul, Chattanooga is living the wireless dream. Its mesh network delivers 16 Mbps symmetrical Wi-Fi service for government-only use, and EPB is adding WiMAX and LTE capabilities that all local governments in EPB’s 600-mile footprint can use.

The city has implemented 56 applications, with many more on the drawing board. Two of these really have city workers abuzz. The first is a fleet of wirelessly-controlled helicopter drones, each with dual wireless video feeds. These allow workers to view remote, inaccessible and/or highly dangerous situations from the safety of their vehicles. Additional software analyzes video images to distinguish between, say, ducks on the water and floating trash without workers having to monitor the video feeds.

The second is a special imaging program that can scan and upload 3-D images, then create static holograms similar to those in the Star Trek episodes. Within 10 minutes, a portable device scans 300 yards in all directions vertically and horizontally, and wirelessly uploads one aspect of a building, crime scene, etc. All aspects of a “target area” are combined into one file. Chattanooga’s City Hall, for example, required six scans to capture the entire building, and the combined file held seven billion data points.

Investigators sitting in their cars can wirelessly access a crime scene file, interview a witness and based on the witness’ details, accurately plot the witness’ location in the file for the district attorney to pull up in court. The application also creates a 3-D hologram.

Check out the second part of this story, coming Monday, to read other highlights of Craig Settles’ site visit and lessons learned.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst and Co-Director of Communities United for Broadband and can be found at @cjsettles on Twitter.

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