How Chattanooga used fiber to buoy the rest of its tech community

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In 2010, J.Ed Marston — then the vice president of marketing for the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce — was tasked with pitching new media outlets about one of the city’s latest high-tech offerings. The city’s utility provider, Electrical Power Board of Chattanooga, had created its own fiber optic network that was capable of delivering internet speeds of 1 gigabit per second to all residents.

The problem that Marston encountered wasn’t that media outlets weren’t interested — it was that not everyone believed that a city the size of Chattanooga (population 177,571) could have created their own fiber network with internet speeds that fast.

“I had to get EPB to write out a technical spec that I could provide to people…to prove that we actually had what we said we had,” Marston recalls.

Today, the city has become synonymous with its homegrown fiber network, earning the nickname “Gig City.” My GamesBeat colleague Stephanie Chan recently covered Chattanooga’s latest event — TenGig, an esports festival taking place October 6-8 — that leverages the city’s fiber optic network, which now can deliver speeds of up to 10 gigabites per second. But the TenGig festival represents just one of a number of ways that Chattanooga has sought to use the gig as a recruiting tool.

While Chattanooga has been praised for its quickly growing tech community, not all of the city’s residents are seeing equal benefits from the tech boom. However, what Chattanooga has succeeded at is taking one component of a tech ecosystem — fast, reliable internet — and used it as a building block for some of the pieces of a strong tech ecosystem that the city was previously lacking.

Since the fiber optic network was first installed in 2010, Chattanooga is now home to multiple startup accelerators, and a handful of new venture capital funds such as Dynamo, a one-year-old fund for logistics startups, and the Jump Fund, founded in 2013, which focuses on female-led startups. Some startup success stories include Bellhops, which has raised $21.2 million, and Quickque, which sold to Open Table in 2013 for $11.5 million.

“Infrastructure is a starting point, but it’s really what you do with it that makes the ultimate difference,” says Marston, now the vice president of marketing for EPB.

In 2013, when Chattanooga’s current Mayor Andy Berke was first elected, he launched a series of task forces aimed at improving certain aspects of entertainment, business, and infrastructure in Chattanooga, including one focused on applications of the gig, tech, and entrepreneurship. Though the city’s gigabit internet had been the subject of profiles in The New York Times and Wired shortly after the fiber network was installed, the city wanted to find new ways to leverage the gig that would ensure the spotlight stayed on Chattanooga.

The task force found that the best way to capture the momentum the gig brought to the city was to unite the efforts of various private and public organizations in Chattanooga. So the Enterprise Center, an organization that’s existed in Chattanooga since 2002, but whose work mostly centered on cleaning up polluted sites and bringing ventures like a high-speed rail to town, retooled its mission to focus on exploring different applications of the city’s gigabit internet.

The Enterprise Center currently focuses on three strategic initiatives — building out the city’s Innovation District where many of its accelerators and tech startups are located, attracting researchers to utilize the city’s smart grid and gigabit internet in their work, and bridging the city’s digital divide, by making digital education courses, as well as reduced-price laptops and internet subscriptions, available to low-income residents.

Andrew Rogers, the director of research applications for the Enterprise Center, says that the center focuses on supporting research that demonstrates unique applications of the gig. For example, the Enterprise Center helped facilitate a partnership between the University of Southern California and a STEM magnet school in Chattanooga in 2015, where students could remotely control a microscope while discussing what they see in the images with a USC professor.

It’s an approach that other Chattanooga organizations like the Gigtank, a five-year old accelerator, have emulated. The Gigtank specifically looks for startups in industries that require a high bandwidth — and has zeroed in on healthcare, 3D printing, and SDN startups in particular. One of the accelerator’s most well-known alumni is Branch Technology, a 3D printing housing startup that moved from Alabama to Chattanooga.

One challenge that Chattanooga faces is that its fiber optic network isn’t as unique as when EPB first installed it in 2010. As of May 2017, more than 110 communities in the U.S. had a publicly owned network offering services of at least 1 gigabit. In order to maintain its reputation as a tech hub, Chattanooga will have to keep pace with other trends in the tech world. That may prove harder for Chattanooga than other cities given that it’s smaller and doesn’t have as close of access to the typical breeding grounds for new technology — large research institutions and Fortune 500 companies.

Ken Hays, the president of the Enterprise Center, believes that what the fiber network has brought to Chattanooga — beyond faster internet — is a sense of pride in being a “first mover.” Some of the most recent initiatives that have garnered attention in Chattanooga — a co-living space for tech entrepreneurs that opened in December 2016, and a pop-up tech-focused kitchen with a 3-D food printer have less to do with showcasing unique applications of Chattanooga’s fiber network, and more about establishing Chattanooga as a place to test out ideas.

“We want to bring in the next generation technologies that are just as disruptive as the gig when we deployed it seven years ago,” says Rogers.

 

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