US Ignite partners with Chattanooga into the tech future
Last week EPB dropped the price of Chattanooga's famous gigabit Internet service from $300 a month to $70 per month and upgraded customers with 100 and 250 megabit-per-second service to the Gig, bumping the number of Gig subscribers from less than a dozen to more than 2,900. The Wall Street Journal (among other media) noticed, with a story on its blog.
To get some perspective on what the change means, I spoke to Tim Kochan with US Ignite, a public-private partnership among the tech industry, government agencies and local communities that are deploying advanced technology.
US Ignite aims at roughly the same objective as Chattanooga's Gig Tank, only on a national scale: encouraging the development of new applications that make use of next generation, high-bandwidth Internet connectivity. Chattanooga has been a partner since US Ignite was launched a year and a half ago. US Ignite has worked with public and private leaders in Chattanooga and with companies developing applications in the Gig Tank.
I asked him about the national context of Chattanooga having cheaper and more widespread gigabit-per-second Internet. He sees EPB's announcement in terms of scale. A technology start-up begins small out of necessity — because an idea is easier to fund and refine when it's small — and also scales up out of necessity — because larger size is necessary to compete in the market place.
"If you're an application developer working on something that needs a gigabit network to operate, you need to be able to test it among more end users to find out what the value is, how it's going to be used and who is going to use it," he said. "Chattanooga is one of the few new markets for many applications."
Making the Gig more affordable and increasing the number of people who have it makes Chattanooga a more attractive place to build new products and companies or to introduce products developed elsewhere.
US Ignite is about 18 months into a five-year plan, working with hundreds of developers around the country, to create 60 brand new applications that require gigabit speed Internet.
"I hope in next two to three years to see strong and quick development of novel applications that really can only be taken advantage of in places like Chattanooga where gigabit networks are available," he said.
The growth of the next generation of super-fast bandwidth is a chicken-and-egg paradox. Which comes first: higher bandwidth or applications that require higher bandwidth? This "build it and they will come" approach is not only how the first-generation Internet was built in the mid 1990s. It's what drove the creation of the first electrical grids in the 1800s and the electrification of this area by TVA in the 1930s.
"US Ignite's mission to find more and more reasons for people to build that kind of network," he said. "The reasons you build those networks are the applications. You don't build them for their own sake. You build them for what they can do to better your life, to make things higher quality, faster, etc."
In the next six to twelve months, Kochan hopes to see some application prototypes, maybe even some product launches.
"Chattanooga is perfectly poised to become a test bed for that kind of new technology," he said.
US Ignite also works with communities across the country that are planning gigabit infrastructure. Chattanooga is unique, said Kochan, not just in being first to create a citywide gigabit network, but in what followed the rollout: the Gig Tank summer incubator and year-round efforts to launch technology start-ups, the Geek Hunt to attract tech talent, the national technology leaders that have been brought in as speakers and consultants.
"The work must continue and explain to the community how a network like the one that's been deployed in Chattanooga can be a step change in the community's overall technology," said Kochan. "It's not just a question of bandwidth. We're talking about a network that can be used in a completely different way to address community needs."
I don't think it's too much of a reach to compare the current rise of gigabit-speed bandwidth to early days of the Internet in the mid-’90s, when change was clearly in the air but no one knew what would happen. Kochan is reluctant to make sweeping generalizations like that, but he seems to be describing a different Internet.
"This kind of connectivity is transformative in that it allows for what I like to call the 'Internet immersion experience' that is moving away from the Internet that is largely downloadable video, text and images," he said. "We're talking about an Internet where you could have ongoing persistent live connections" for health care, education, manufacturing and more.
"It's not just an incremental increase in capacity," he said. "It is a tool that can bring about a tremendous amount of change. It's an entirely different kind of network. And it's not really just about speed. It's about a network that's adaptable to a new kind of communication between people."