Lessons from a “Gig City”

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Cleveland leaders travel to Chattanooga, TN, to discover what makes a “Connected City”

—By Will Tarter, Community Engagement Specialist

Group Photo outside of Chattanooga City Hall

Members of the Connected Cities delegation from Cleveland outside Chattanooga City Hall.

Welcome Reception

At a welcoming reception, Nate and Corrine Hill of the Chattanooga Public Library shared their library’s experience working with the City’s gigabit network with Cleveland Public Library Executive Director Felton Thomas (right).

Visit to EPB

David Wade, COO of Chattanooga’s EPB utility, demonstrates some of the many ways the publicly owned gigabit network generates revenue and improves both electric power and high-speed networking services to the community.

—What does a city of the future look like? How can such cities leverage fiber optic network infrastructure to benefit businesses and residents? What kind of companies do they attract? What do they do differently than anyone else? Most importantly, what can Cleveland leaders learn from these cities?

These questions are the motivators behind OneCommunity’s “Connected Cities” Public Officials Fact-finding Missions, a series of field trips to cities that have implemented next-generation fiber-optic-based networks.

The first stop: two days in Chattanooga, TN. Chattanooga became America’s first “Gig City” in 2010 thanks to its $320-million investment in a 100% fiber optic network. Chattanooga’s publicly owned broadband network provides ultrahigh-speed networking technology to roughly 170,000 businesses and residents. Chattanooga’s non-profit electric power utility, EPB, built and operates the 8,000-mile network which is available throughout the utility’s entire 600-square-mile service area.

“Across the country, civic and business leaders now understand that digital infrastructure investments have moved from ‘nice-to-have’ to ‘must-have’ investments,” said OneCommunity CEO Lev Gonick. “That’s why Chattanooga was the first stop on our agenda. It took bold civic leadership as well as political and business consensus to drive the evolution of the city’s traditional power service to include a next-generation broadband network, including a Smart Grid and Fiber-To-The-Home.”

Thanks to a generous grant from The Gund Foundation, Gonick led a delegation of seven forward-thinking Cleveland leaders to Chattanooga on June 16th and 17th.  The delegation included:

  • Brian Cummins, Cleveland City Council Representative, Ward 14
  • Joanne Hovis, OneCommunity Board Member, President, CTC Technology & Energy, Washington D.C.
  • Kevin Kelley, President, Cleveland City Council, and Representative, Ward 13
  • Valarie McCall, Chief of Government Affairs,  City of Cleveland
  • Tracey Nichols, Director of Economic Development, City of Cleveland
  • Felton Thomas, Executive Director, Cleveland Public Library
  • Jason Wood, Chief of Public Affairs, Department of Public Utilities, Cleveland
  • Alesha Washington, Senior Director of Policy, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress

From “Dirtiest City in America” to “Gig City”

At a welcoming reception the first evening, Chattanooga hosts thoughtfully paired each Cleveland delegate with counterparts from Chattanooga’s civic leadership. This provided a unique opportunity to share observations about the direction of economic development and high-speed fiber optic network technology.

During visits to new venture accelerators  Company Lab, GigTank and The Lamp Post Group the Cleveland attendees heard directly from entrepreneurs about why gigabit access is critical to their success. In addition, the group visited the Chamber of Commerce, a telehealth radiology facility and co-working sites.

The group toured the Chattanooga Public Library’s 12,000-square-foot technology laboratory that offers free access to the City’s gigabit network.  In addition, the library and the City have developed a unique “Open Data” relationship which allows the library to serve as the central repository of government data, an arrangement which Chattanooga’s leaders say makes collaboration easier and facilitates government transparency.

The highlight of the trip was a visit to EPB’s Distribution Center where COO David Wade graphically demonstrated the capabilities of the fiber-optic-based Smart Grid network. Wade showed how Smart Grid technology automatically re-routes electricity during an outage to ensure that the fewest possible customers are affected. It also enables the utility to deploy and track repair teams most efficiently. There are dozens of other Smart Grid functions that deliver better service and significant savings. The Cleveland delegation learned that EPB’s gigabit fiber network now actually generates more revenue than the City’s electric utility system (see chart below).

Later, the group met with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, one of the gigabit network’s most vocal supporters. Berke reminded the delegation from Cleveland that back in the 1960s Chattanooga was branded “The Dirtiest City in America” by broadcaster Walter Cronkite. The decision by civic leaders to reinvent Chattanooga as a leader in environmental sustainability was one of the catalysts that fueled a new generation of community involvement in business and civic affairs. Berke and his administration see the Gig City as Chattanooga’s next big idea in its reinvention.

Today, Chattanooga’s unique broadband network, robust economic growth and low unemployment rate generates positive news coverage in media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. A representative of the city’s Chamber of Commerce told the Cleveland delegates they have tracked more than 1.3 billion media impressions thanks to the city’s new status as a Gig City.

“My biggest takeaway from this trip was the level of cooperation and collaboration between so many entities in the city,” said Felton Thomas, Executive Director of the Cleveland Public Library. “The Mayor, the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the public library and small businesses believed in the potential of this network model. It took the support of all these institutions to move the model ahead very quickly.”

“These fact-finding missions will help our city’s leaders learn how to build a strong economic strategy around a next-generation digital infrastructure that will secure Cleveland’s long-term future,” added Gonick.

The next Connected Cities Fact-Finding Missions to Toronto and Kansas City, Mo., are planned for later this year.

EPB: Fiber Financial Benefits to Electric Systems

Fiber's Financial Benefits to the Chattanooga Electric System. Source: EPB.

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