Chat­tanooga: the fi­bre-op­tic wild west

Pub­licly funded broad­band is turn­ing US back­woods towns into vir­tual me­trop­o­lises. Who’s for some so­cial­ist Wi-Fi?

Australian T3 - - CONTENTS -

State­side by Chris Smith

So, how’s the Na­tional Broad­band Net­work’s roll­out go­ing? Not so well, I hear, but in the States there’s the start of some­thing big. It’s like a new gold rush, or the sec­ond-com­ing rail­roads that tamed the young, raw Amer­ica, and it’s born out of the same mix of com­mu­nity spirit and ra­pa­cious cap­i­tal­ism that forged the USA.

If you’re brave enough to en­dorse the mer­its of so­cial­ism, or even so­cial democ­racy, in the United States, you should prob­a­bly be wear­ing some sort of pro­tec­tive cloth­ing or be able to run re­ally fast. Even the Pres­i­dent’s been deemed a filthy com­mie for seek­ing to raise taxes on the rich­est and bring in uni­ver­sal health­care.

How­ever, in one part of the coun­try, they’re prov­ing that a lit­tle col­lec­tive ef­fort for the greater good can help to trans­form com­pletely a city that was once dubbed “the dirt­i­est in Amer­ica” – a ti­tle for which there’s no short­age of com­pe­ti­tion, we should add – into a bustling hub of tech in­no­va­tion.

A few years back in the mid-sized Ten­nessee city of Chat­tanooga – for­merly most fa­mous for its, er, “choo-choo” – the lo­cal power board built a smart elec­tric­ity grid that en­abled the roll­out of a pub­licly funded fi­bre-op­tic broad­band net­work. It of­fered Gi­ga­bit speed to busi­nesses and res­i­dents, at cost, beat­ing the funded-up­the-ass Google Fi­bre ini­tia­tive to the punch and even sur­viv­ing le­gal chal­lenges from na­tional be­he­moth Com­cast.

To­day, for just US$70 a month Chat­tanoogans within a 1,000km ra­dius, in­clud­ing those in the most ru­ral coun­ties, can har­ness speeds over 100 times faster than the 2013 US na­tional av­er­age of 9.8Mbps. It is – whis­per it – so­cialised hy­per-fast in­ter­net.

Chat­tanooga, or Gig City, as it’s since been dubbed, has at­tracted a wealth of new busi­nesses ea­ger to jump on board the hy­per-fast in­fra­struc­ture. Some are choos­ing to set up in the re­gion, oth­ers are shift­ing the 100-odd miles south from Knoxville, a larger and pre­vi­ously more renowned city. Like all good start-up­friendly cities, it hosts an an­nual in­cu­ba­tor, too, with Gig Tank of­fer­ing sup­port and men­tor­ing to in­no­va­tors in the 3D print­ing and health­care sec­tors.

So, just as with the rail­roads and the high­ways, fast in­ter­net is prov­ing piv­otal to the in­dus­trial pros­per­ity of a town and its cit­i­zens. The abil­ity to send and re­ceive mas­sive files su­per fast is be­com­ing as im­por­tant as trans­port links.

It makes you won­der, doesn’t it? With many ar­eas around Aus­tralia still wait­ing for the ar­rival of de­cent in­ter­net speeds, could more cities take their dig­i­tal fate into their own hands and get a jump­start on the rest?

With cut­ting-edge web in­fra­struc­ture, per­haps smaller towns look­ing to gen­er­ate some­thing of a re­boot could fol­low Chat­tanooga’s ex­am­ple and lure peo­ple away from big­ger towns nearby.

It would cer­tainly be one way of pre­vent­ing Aus­tralia’s hand­ful of large cities from over­crowd­ing. Plus, the rent’s cheaper, the air’s cleaner and, you need never fear hav­ing to wait while your Net­flix stream buf­fers ever again.

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