published Sunday, August 11th, 2013

Gig city dreams

Debbie Tien, CEO of finance technology startup Sisasa, talks about the company's mobile banking app targeted at young adults during the Gig Tank Demo Day on Aug. 6, 2013.
Debbie Tien, CEO of finance technology startup Sisasa, talks about the company's mobile banking app targeted at young adults during the Gig Tank Demo Day on Aug. 6, 2013.
Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

More than two decades ago, some smart thinkers touted an idea to build an enormous aquarium here in Chattanooga and to use it to explain river ecology and bring tourists to southeast Tennessee.

Naysayers wrung their hands about the prospect of spending even one dime of taxpayer money on “a fish tank.” They were the tea partiers of their day. Still, as loudly as they whined, the Tennessee Aquarium was built. And it transformed Chattanooga far beyond the potential even its supporters expected.

That’s the same kind of potential Chattanooga’s fiber optics — dubbed the Gig — offer. The Gig is short for the fiber system’s gigabit-per-second Internet speed that already is drawing bright entrepreneurs who need massive speed and fiber infrastructure to develop tomorrow’s applications for things we haven’t even thought of yet.

Already, the fiber system makes possible the use of smart street lights, real-time air quality monitors and crime surveillance cameras. All this adds up to real money savings — now and over time.

Unlike the aquarium idea, the Gig was not easy to explain and envision.

Like the aquarium, it also immediately drew supporters, but also a handful of loud-mouthed naysayers.

And like the aquarium, the Gig will take time — years — to make a palpable difference in Chattanooga, which is now called by some, the Gig City.

The Gig actually is a local electricity infrastructure. It was built by EPB and financed with more than $111 million in federal stimulus money, and it already has become more than first envisioned.

It has saved money — especially local money. It has markedly shortened electrical outage times locally. Remember when the slightest wind knocked out our power for hours? Now the power blinks and is usually restored before you reach for the phone.

It should not be confused with the city’s mesh program — or with other city programs such as wi-fi or the the Intelligent Traffic System (traffic lights). Those programs may, in places and at times, be plugged to the fiber system, but they are funded and operated separately and by the city, not EPB.

All of the programs — but especially the fiber system itself and all of the potential it has — cannot be perfected and developed overnight. And, as with any developing technology, some of it will simply have to be trial and error. Just a look at how it started shows this.

The Gig City developed after then-Mayor Bob Corker asked EPB to take over the city’s struggling attempt at its own Metronet service a decade ago. EPB began developing a fiber network to strengthen its electricity grid, but ultimately developed a fiber optics Internet and cable TV system that boasts the fastest Internet service in the country and has customers to help pay for more development.

This week, the city held a Gig Tank — basically a pitch slam by smart people from all over the world — with applications and demonstrations aimed at winning private investors for tomorrow’s commerce. Mayor Andy Berke welcomed them, and he and keynote speaker Bob Metcalf, inventor of the Ethernet, challenged them to find better ways for public information sharing.

“Do you all know what a MOOC is?” Metcalfe asked the crowd. “Massive open online courses,” he told them. MOOCs use Gigspeed to make a classroom something global, and Metcalfe says fiber optics and massive open online courses will disrupt education in the same way email disrupted snail mail, and iTunes disrupted music and other Internet applications disrupted news-gathering and book publishing.

No, Chattanooga’s foray into the Gig-citydom is not think-tank proven. No, it wasn’t initially cheap for taxpayers.

Like the Tennessee Aquarium, it’s a bit like “build it and they will come.”

And, like the Aquarium, making it pay will take a little logic, a bit of faith, a small gamble and a lot of determination.

We’ve got it all.

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librul said...

And after 20 years, the Tennessee River is just as much of a silt-laden, eutrophic open sewer as it ever was and despite new concrete and steel to wow transients, the core city is being transformed more by gentrification than inclusion and poor minority communities remain the drug ridden poverty pockets they always were.

Reality can throw a wet blanket on promotional verbage quicker than anything. Just because we have a million-dollar yacht tied up on the riverfront and a plethora of condos and gated communities available only to the upper classes does not mean our horribly stratified "community" is "transformed".

Some have put a bright shine on the apple, but there are still ignored worms gnawing at the core.

August 11, 2013 at 11:37 a.m.
jjmez said...
  • the core city is being transformed more by gentrification than inclusion*

The above could be noticed as far back as the 1980s. Gentrification plans and using manufactured crime and gangs in targeted areas to justify removal of homeless and the poor.

August 11, 2013 at 6:44 p.m.
aae1049 said...

Applause!! for Librul. nail on head...

Oh please editor, "build it and they will come" works only in boom economy,: Chattanooga has a poverty rate of 30 percent. Do you really thing this fluffy stuff is going to help that situation?

"And after 20 years, the Tennessee River is just as much of a silt-laden, eutrophic open sewer as it ever was and despite new concrete and steel to wow transients, the core city is being transformed more by gentrification than inclusion and poor minority communities remain the drug ridden poverty pockets they always were.

Reality can throw a wet blanket on promotional verbage quicker than anything. Just because we have a million-dollar yacht tied up on the riverfront and a plethora of condos and gated communities available only to the upper classes does not mean our horribly stratified "community" is "transformed".

August 13, 2013 at 4:18 a.m.
TheCommander said...

Dear author, I am one of those naysayers you refer to. Can you please go find some of those smart thinkers you refer to and ask them how the aquarium can make a dent in its $24 million long term debt, its rapidly dwindling net asset base, its $90,000 loss on an interest rate swap deal? One solution these smart people came up with is to add a $50 fee to Hamilton county school children for the aquarium and IMAX. I know of one school for sure is doing this. Can anyone confirm that this is happening all over Chattanooga? I would love to have this confirmed. Steadily declining attendance, significant growth in advertising expense, and the need to finance more and more debt to create more exhibits has made all the fears of the naysayers come true. Don't you think we will be bailing out the aquarium in a few years? Such is the nature of these public-private partnerships...

August 14, 2013 at 9:06 a.m.
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