When you think of communities leading the way of Internet connectivity, your thoughts probably lean toward tech hubs like the Silicon Valley, big cities like LA, Chicago, and New York, and cultural centers like Austin and Portland. But one of the real leaders might surprise you.

Chattanooga, Tennessee Mayor Andy Berke acknowledges that his city isn’t one you’d automatically assume is a leader in broadband connectivity.

“Mid-sized Southern cities in the U.S. are not generally thought of as being ahead of the technological curve,” Berke said. “The Gig changed that.”

Previously best known for the song about its railroad, Chattanooga is becoming more known for its early creation and consumer adoption of a gigabit fiber optic network.

The actual creator of that network isn’t who you might think: it’s the city’s publicly-owned electrical utility, EPB. But why would a utility build a fiber network? The answer is simple: EPB uses the fiber for more than just Internet subscribers. The fiber network forms the backbone of EPB’s Smarter Grid, a series of networked sensors tied into the power grid that can automatically detect power interruptions, pinpoint the faulty equipment, and automatically reroute power to non-affected equipment nearly instantly.

If Chattanooga were the only community interested in a municipal utility-based Internet provider, this information would be nothing more than an interesting bit of trivia. But other communities large and small, from Boston to Santa Monica, are very interested in what EPB and Chattanooga have done. EPB has been vocal in advocating the advantages of the Smarter Grid to other communities, advising them in creation of their own fiber-supported electrical grids. Chattanooga is a model for and member of Next Century Cities, a group of more than 30 communities dedicated to improving the availability of gigabit Internet.

Increasing the availability of high-speed Internet access does more than just let residents download games faster or stream movies smoother. It’s a useful tool for attracting new businesses, as Chattanooga has shown. Volkswagen, Amazon, and many smaller tech startups now have a presence in the city, bringing jobs and stimulating the economy. Naturally, other members of Next Century Cities wish to replicate this success.

But some feel government should stay out of the Internet business, and it’s true that some such government efforts have failed. Groton, Connecticut, owned phone and Internet provider Thames Valley Communications; budget problems forced the city to sell TVC for a $34.5 million loss. St. Cloud, Florida was one of the first cities in the nation to offer free citywide Wi-Fi access, which it had to suspend for budgetary reasons. And other critics point to foreign governments shutting down Internet access in the face of protests, and fear the potential for a similar denial of access in our own country.

As a result of these concerns, some communities face legal challenges to providing high-speed Internet to their residents. In Tennessee, for example, only cities that own their electric utility may provide Internet access. But as the members of New Century Cities indicate, there is significant interest all across the country in municipally-provided high-speed Internet. Would you support your community creating a publicly-owned high-speed network?

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Photo: Next Century Cities