Maximizing the Benefits of Fiber

I recently talked to Deb Socia who is now the CEO of the Enterprise Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Anybody who knows Deb knows that she’s worked for decades to find solutions for digital inclusion and was also the founder of Next Century Cities. It’s not a surprise to see her now as the head of the Enterprise Center, which is a non-profit that is working to leverage the city’s fiber network to benefit a number of sectors of the community.

The organization has three primary areas of focus. First, the Enterprise Center helped to establish and now is at the forefront of promoting Chattanooga’s Innovation District. This is a section of town that is focused on promoting new business start-ups and to create collaboration between creative thinkers, entrepreneurs, the local University community, and technology gurus. This effort involves numerous initiatives such as a high-tech business incubator program, co-working space for new businesses, and a host of services to help new businesses succeed.

The second area of emphasis is the Smart City Collaborative. This currently involves a 1.5-mile section of the city that is fully-sensored with a wide range of smart devices. The area is a testbed for smart city applications and has attracted institutions like the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the National Science Foundation, U.S. Ignite, and the University of Southern California, along with numerous vendors and entrepreneurs. The collaboration has a number of goals. One is to test new smart city ideas in a field environment that is wired with gigabit fiber. The collaboration also concentrates on smart city applications that don’t violate citizen privacy. The long-term goal of the Enterprise Center is to spread the best of the smart city applications to the rest of Chattanooga.

Finally, Deb returned to her roots and is promoting digital equity through various programs such as Tech Goes Home – something she worked on in her past. Chattanooga is known for having fiber available everywhere, but like most cities still has many households that can’t afford broadband. The digital equity effort works to provide the three necessary components of digital inclusion – connectivity, computer hardware, and the training needed to use broadband. Deb reports that the demand for computer training is far exceeding predictions.

All of this is made possible to some degree by the fact that Chattanooga has a municipal broadband network. Deb says that City-owned ISP is key for her success. That can be seen in other communities like Wilson, North Carolina where the city has leveraged broadband to make big strides in revitalizing downtown, attracting businesses, invigorating the arts, and helping to solve the digital divide. Eugene, Oregon has leveraged gigabit fiber to create an economic boom by enabling a sizable community of software developers.

I’ve always been mystified why more cities don’t follow the lead of cities like Chattanooga, Wilson, and Eugene. There are now a few hundred communities that have built municipal fiber networks and many of them have not taken the next step past using the network to provide faster broadband. Faster and better broadband is important and can alone bring big benefits to a City such as increased incomes from citizens working from home, or from citizens levering broadband to start new businesses. The Enterprise Center has made the bold statement that broadband alone is not nearly enough, and a City has to expend effort to get the full benefits out of a broadband network.

Even more puzzling is that it’s rare to see this same effort in cities that have broadband networks provided by commercial ISPs. There are now many cities served by Google Fiber or other fiber overbuilders. I can’t think of anything that stops such cities from duplicating the efforts undertaken by the Enterprise Center and its many partners in the City.

I think cities that don’t tackle these issues are missing a huge opportunity. My guess is that twenty years from now the City of Chattanooga will be able to point to major employers that got their start through the business incubator effort. The city is likely to have benefitted hugely by keeping some of its brightest entrepreneurs at home rather than have them move to the handful of big tech centers around the country. It’s almost impossible to calculate the gigantic community benefit that can come from helping low-income households join the digital world. In a decade Chattanooga will start seeing young professionals and entrepreneurs that were aided by the efforts made today to solve the digital divide.