It is far too simple to say Chattanooga's high-speed fiber optic network is the cornerstone to the city's future growth. While city leaders and operator EPB have embraced the slogan of "GigCity" along with "Fastest network connectivity in the Western Hemisphere" to underline deployment of one gigabit fiber connectivity to all residences and businesses, it is only one piece of a much larger puzzle fostering entrepreneurship.
Earlier this week, I was part of a two day media tour sponsored by the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, meeting with the city's incubators, start-up companies, and town leaders. Back in the pre-Internet days, Chattanooga was a manufacturing town. Among its claims to fame was the "Dirtiest city in America" in 1969, with air pollution so thick drivers needed headlights in the day time to see through the fog.
It took decades to clean up the city's woes from a mix of job losses, a deteriorating city infrastructure, and social woes. Money went into restoring its downtown and riverfront areas, diversifying the local economy into tourism. Town leaders now count up national awards for livability, housing, and consolidated planning. Volkswagen now builds 150,000 cars a year out of a $1 billion LEED Platinum certified plant supporting more than 3,200 employees and another 9,500 indirect supplier jobs.
Sustainability is the watchword for the day, be it in environmental stewardship or economic growth. Collecting LEED certification for office buildings seems to be a necessity for local businesses. Eco-tourists come to run the rapids and climb the rocks. A free electric bus service lead to a hometown business building electric buses.
But town leaders never stop thinking about tomorrow. In 2008, city-owned not-for-profit EPB decided to build a smart grid with fiber optics as the backbone for communications. The deployment of the fiber enabled the company to offer high-speed internet, TV, and phone along with improved reliability to the existing power grid. An injection of economic stimulus money helped to accelerate deployment of high-speed connectivity with gigabit speeds and a "self healing" power grid that automatically reroutes and restores power when interruptions occur.
Having the fastest network in the Western Hemisphere sounds sporty and attracts attention, but Chattanooga's approach to startups isn't based on "If you build it, they will come." There are three incubators in town, with the publicly funded INCubator in operation since the early 1980's – predating the commercial Internet – boasting that it is the third largest in the United States.
More recently, the Lamp Post Group has put to work over $50 million in investment funds, working with high-tech ventures such as Ambition and Bell Hops, as well as the more prosaic Chattanooga Whiskey Company (no samples were offered in the writing of this story). Ambition has gamified sales force management, combining game theory with analytics to get the most out of employees through friendly competition. Bellhops is the Uber of moving help, matching on-demand licensed and insured moving help – college students for the most part – with people seeking small scale help to move out of apartments and 2-3 bedroom houses. If you provide the moving van, Bellhops will provide the hands to get the truck loaded.
City leaders anticipate more business growth from its gigabit network for years to come with current elementary and high-school students contributing to the sustainability of the economy. Launched last year, TechTech is a technology and entrepreneurial learning center offering year-round after school programs and summer camp for children from ages 7 to 17.
I am, sadly, a few years over the upper age limit for attending TechTown, because I would love to work in the 3D printing lab, go to the robotics section, and participate in the digital film class – I'd want to get waiver for coding and graphics design. TechTown has the newest hardware available and plans a two year technology refresh cycle so students will get to work with the latest equipment.
TechTown's operating philosophy is "a non-profit that works like a business," charging tuition when it can and working with local businesses to get funds so it can provide reduced tuition and scholarships for those who can't afford a full ride. It is also building much needed relationships with local area schools and communities to provide experiences that aren't otherwise available.
Chattanooga's recovery from the bad times of earlier decades is evident in a drive through the city, with a lot of new construction taking place. The combination of whole-city gigabit fiber, a smart grid, incubators, and forward thinking leadership promises a healthy future for the region.