EPB President and CEO David Wade cut the ceremonial cake to open the Big Gig Community Festival, in celebration of the 100,000th fiber customer, on October 20, 2018.
Starting a little more than a decade ago, Chattanooga’s municipal electric utility, EPB, began making moves to add broadband internet, TV, and telephone services to its roster of offerings. Incumbent cable and telecom providers did everything they could to stop EPB. They ran ads that warned the public against municipal broadband, questioned the need for faster internet speeds and filed lawsuits against EPB.
Despite pushback, EPB constructed a community-wide fiber optic network encompassing Chattanooga and the surrounding region. EPB began the effort of deploying 9,000 miles of fiber optics in 2008 and completed the job of making the network accessible to every home and business in its service area in 2010. To make the service sustainable, EPB needed to reach 35,000 customers. In 2009 after launching its fiber optics services the year before, EPB announced a Gig-speed (1,000 Mbps) internet offering, making Chattanooga the first city in America with such fast connectivity available to all homes and businesses.
EPB blew past its initial goal of 35,000 customers, and earlier this fall, hit 100,000 fiber customers. Now, EPB offers 100 Mbps connectivity as a standard offer, and has a discounted 100 Mbps service for students in Title I schools. Chattanooga is one of fewer than 200 communities with citywide municipal broadband. Residents and businesses love the high-speed connectivity, but the Gig has come to mean a lot more to Chattanoogans. It’s become a community asset that’s improving education, health, and transportation.
On a recent afternoon at Red Bank High School, biology students gathered in front of a large high-res monitor, in awe of the images floating across the screen. They were looking at pond scum under a high-end Olympus microscope that’s usually only found at top university graduate programs or the CDC. The display was otherworldly — bright green and orange blobs and worm-like creatures swimming by.
A student at STEM School Chattanooga looks at imagery from a highly-advanced microscope, while students across town at Red Bank High School (seen on the video conference) control the microscope in real-time. (Photo by Andrew Rodgers)
The microscope has a 4k video camera attached, which captures imagery at about four times standard high-def resolution, and it projects onto a large monitor. The really impressive thing, though, was that the microscope and camera were across town at STEM School Chattanooga. EPB installed a special connection at Red Bank High School, at the STEM School, and at a few other schools in challenged areas, so that students across the county could remotely maneuver the highly advanced microscope. The 4k microscope project, made possible by support from The Enterprise Center, Mozilla, NSF, and US Ignite, gives of glimpse of how fiber is impacting the lives of Chattanoogans.
The prospects for what the network could do for Chattanooga have just been made even brighter. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has stepped up to lead a newly-formed research collaborative, between the university and several other institutions including EPB and the area’s largest hospital network. Researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratories, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, UT Dallas, and The University of Vermont have all recently brought projects to Chattanooga that take advantage of the fiber optic network. These projects will move science forward, but they should also have a positive impact locally, as they aim to solve health and transportation-related problems in the Chattanooga community.
EPB’s network has proved to be a boon for the entrepreneurial community, too. “Being a tech company handling the volume of calls and online traffic that we do, having access to high-speed internet is vital for our business,” Kyle Miller with the moving company Bellhops told Edge Magazine. Bellhops is a homegrown company, but others are relocating to Chattanooga because of the powerful fiber network.
Chattanooga has really just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible with such a powerful and widespread municipal network. “When you have momentum like we do, it’s time to push harder, because we can get twice the ROI (return on investment) for our effort,” Stephen Culp, a Chattanooga entrepreneur told Edge Magazine.
When EPB’s fiber optic network launched, nobody really knew how it would affect people’s lives. Ten gigabits and 100,000 customers later, the people of Chattanooga have begun to see what can be done. Now, there’s a supportive foundation for developments in research, education, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem. So, the next decade should be even more exciting than the last, in terms of how Chattanooga’s fiber network can grow the economy and improve people’s lives.
Ken Hays is the CEO and President of The Enterprise Center