What do you do with a gigabit? At a time when the average American connects to the Internet at speeds under 15 Mbits/s, what could anyone possibly need a gigabit for?
As the poster child for gigabit cities, Chattanooga is a leader in the search for killer gigabit apps. The Tennessee town has had gigabit service since 2010 when municipal-owned utility company EPB Fiber Optics switched on its fiber network for homes and businesses throughout the region. Since then, the city has worked hard to encourage startups and big institutions alike to take advantage of the broadband infrastructure to create new business opportunities and solve real-world problems.
"Entrepreneurs today need a highly caffeinated, dense city to live in," said Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke at Light Reading's Gigabit Cities Live event. (See Gigabit Cities: I've Seen the Future and 6 Steps Towards a Gigabit City.)
Chattanooga has been happy to oblige, packing motivated individuals and companies into a downtown Innovation District and partnering with organizations like US Ignite to host hackathons and multi-day business launch competitions. After years of encouragement and support, the work has started to pay off. Chattanooga is finding unique answers to the question of what to do with a gigabit network, and it's showing the rest of the world how high-capacity broadband infrastructure can change the face of a city by connecting businesses, people and the government in new ways.
One of the gigabit success stories Chattanooga Mayor Berke likes to tout is the evolution of Southtree, a company founded in a dorm room in 2006 with the mission of digitizing personal memories stored in old-style media formats like videotape and film. When the business started, its founders shipped digitized media to customers on DVDs and flash drives. Recently, however, Southtree has expanded its service to offer users access to their digital files in the cloud. Cloud storage allows customers to share content easily with friends and family, and gain access to personal media from anywhere with an Internet connection.
Of course, most customers don't have gigabit networks to use for streaming or downloading their files. However, because Southtree has gigabit broadband, it can upload media at a higher resolution than any of its competitors. The company can deliver the sharpest, most vivid personal movies and images thanks to Chattanooga's gigabit network.
That company that started out in a dorm room? It's now located in downtown Chattanooga and has 107 employees.
In education, teachers and students are just beginning to recognize the potential of super-fast high-speed networks.
Without a doubt, the most visually impressive gigabit app that Chattanooga can boast is a telemicroscopy application used by students at a local high school. Thanks to a partnership with the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts (USC), biology students at STEM School Chattanooga are able to stream 4K video of material under a microscope in a USC lab. Simultaneously, a USC professor can teleconference with the high school students to answer questions about what they see and how it pertains to their own studies locally.
In one joint experiment, students compared a sample of pond scum from California with one from their hometown environment. Video of the California pond scum under a microscope was streamed to a large-screen display for close-up examination next to the Chattanooga sample.
The USC partnership is possible not just because of Chattanooga's gigabit network, but also because there's high-capacity infrastructure running (in a roundabout way) between the USC campus and Chattanooga. The online video is transferred first from California to Atlanta over a 100 GB Internet2 connection, and then from Atlanta to Chattanooga on a 10 GB circuit before ending up on EPB's gigabit last mile.
USC professor Richard Weinberg acknowledged during a demo at the recent US Ignite Smart Future 2015 Summit that he has hopes of bringing the USC partnership to more schools in the future, and even of connecting streams from multiple microscopes. "I imagine eventually someday a global network," said Weinberg.
Many private Internet service providers focus on television and other entertainment applications as a way to drive broadband usage. However, while Chattanooga has grand ambitions for its gigabit network, Mayor Berke also wants to make clear that one of them is not to be the go-to provider for premium television.
"I have no desire to compete with any private entity so that we can provide HBO. That's not the point of our network," said Berke at Gigabit Cities Live.
Although EPB offers TV services, Berke is much more interested in improving local business, education and government services.
When EPB built its gigabit fiber network, its main purpose was to support new smart grid applications. With its power metering equipment, EPB used to get two million data hits per year for use in measuring electricity consumption. Now that the company has Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) in place -- backed by a gigabit network -- it gets 16 million data hits per day. The city can respond faster to storms and other natural disasters, and anticipate resource needs before a problem develops.
Chattanooga is also turning broadband around as a government-backed service for low-income families. Just a few weeks ago, EPB announced it's offering an Internet service with speeds up to 100 Mbits/s to every Title I family in the region for only $26.99 per month. The dollar figure is exactly the cost of what it takes EPB to deliver the broadband service.
While Chattanooga is now the face of the gigabit city movement, it took a while for the town to find its footing with gigabit applications. Now that the city has made progress, it wants to share what it's learned -- share what people can do with a gigabit connection -- with its citizens, and the rest of the world.
"Chattanooga is not trying to hold this to ourselves," said Berke.
It's a good thing. Because the gigabit genie is most certainly out of the bottle.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading