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By Robert Bell, John Jung, Louis Zacharilla: Intelligent Communities are those which have - whether through crisis or foresight - come to understand the enormous challenges of the Broadband Economy, and have taken conscious steps to create an economy capable of prospering in it. They are not necessarily big cities or famous technology hubs. They are located in developing nations as well as industrialized ones, suburbs as well as cities, the hinterland as well as the coast.

So what's Your Gig?

September 3, 2013 By

In 2011 I visited Chattanooga, one of ICF’s Top 7 Intelligent Communities for an ICF site visit. Frankly, I had visited Chattanooga a couple of decades earlier and wasn’t impressed then, but today I was blown away. The winds of change had been kind to Chattanooga.  But the new kinds of speeds being discussed in Chattanooga today are daunting by any measure. 

Across the shining boardroom table, Harold DePriest, the President and CEO of the Chattanooga-owned Electric Power Board (EPB) beamed as he told me the history of the EPB and their decision to be North America’s first Gigabit City. Propped by a stimulus grant of $111 million from the Department of Energy to accelerate the project, EPB began formulating plans for a Smart Grid network more than a decade ago. According to Mr. DePriest, Chattanooga's Smart Grid runs on a 100% fiber optic network, upon which EPB were able to add two-way communications up and down the grid not only at the smart meter but also to each of their 170,000 home and business premises. “Our three main goals for the $300 million investment in the network were to modernize our electric power infrastructure, generate the revenue for it to pay for itself and then most importantly to be a catalyst for economic development.”

Mr. DePriest proudly positions Chattanooga as the grandfather of Gigabit networks since its deployment was in 2009, well before others. City fathers saw the city-owned network more than just the city’s smart power grid saving $100 million each year from power interruptions.  Mr. DePriest and other civic leaders saw it as a springboard to Chattanooga’s future able to attract and retain talent and investment in new tech companies, promoting economic growth. To build on this, Chattanooga rebranded itself as “Gig City,” and to gain acceptance and develop new end-user applications it hosts an annual Gigafest.

Across the globe Japan, Korea, UK and others are now deploying efforts to become true Gigabit cities in the likes of Chattanooga. Asian cities and even whole nations are planning to be fully Gig-enabled. China is positioning itself to launch Gigabit speeds in key urban areas by 2020 and US Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has raised the innovation and job-creation bar by calling for US cities in 50 States to be Gig-enabled by 2015.

But what is so big about Gigabit Ethernet speeds anyways? Well for those not strapped into your seatbelts, it is hundreds of times faster than you currently surf over the Internet. 1 Gigabit equals 1,024 Mbps versus your father’s “fast Ethernet” at 100 Mbps, which most people never experience anyways. It’s more likely you might experience 10 Mbps over a shared coaxial cable or less, such as 2 or 3 Mbps in less expensive service offerings.

Mr. DePriest knows that his system is able to attract talent and investment to their community. The bar has been raised and before cities and countries know it, those without will be left behind. Another line has been drawn in the sand. Cities around the world already know this. Koreans enjoy affordable ultra-fast Internet speeds that allow them to download movies in an instant; watch high-definition television and do countless operations at a time in their homes while their fellow countrymen at work are able to work in real time with large datasets to solve industrial, biotechnical and business questions daily that would take 200 times longer elsewhere. According to Lee Suk-Chae, chairman of Korea Telecom, "in the future we will see a data deluge - data will explode all over the network". Cities and countries will have to prepare for it now. Seattle Chief Technology Officer Erin Devoto said Seattle’s gigabit network “is critical to our economic growth.” Likewise Kansas City Mayor Joe Reardon says that US cities are now recognizing the value of high-speed fiber-to-the-home connectivity as essential infrastructure.  “Much like we think of curbs and sidewalks and sewers - the kind of backbone that cities install in order to create positive economic and community development." The importance of this new line in the sand has not been lost on corporations either. On March 30, 2011, after more than 1,100 communities applied to be the first recipient of the high-speed technology, Google announced their Google Fiber network rollout in Kansas City with plans for Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah thereafter. 

With lightening Internet speeds Chattanooga and over a dozen cities in North America now have a great advantage over other communities although some will say that the costs to play are not yet affordable for the average user. But what will people be willing to pay in order to be able to download an encyclopedia in a blink of an eye and high definition movies in the time to boil water for a cup of tea? At speeds of 2 mbps, the latter would normally take 30 hours to download. With 3D images being introduced through Super HD, high speeds will be in demand. And with communities building networks to analyze big data for its municipal infrastructure, there will be pressure to make these networks more accessible and affordable to everyone in the community. If time is money, the level of community-wide impatience to get to this higher level of speed will surely become a factor. Koreans are already enjoying these advantages at affordable prices ($27 per month). With increased demand and use, it is likely that these higher speeds in North America will also someday be deemed affordable. Google announced in July 2012, that its Google Fiber network at 1 Gbps would be priced at $70 per month. But in Chattanooga the price is currently at $350 for 1 Gigabit. Chattanooga blogger Jim Yarbrough complained that “while it's great to have gigabit internet service in Chattanooga, I wonder just how much of a competitive edge it gives us. If Mr. DePriest is anticipating throngs of cyberpreneurs tripping over themselves to locate here, I hope he doesn't turn blue from holding his breath.”  In response, Ken Hayes, one of my hosts during my visit to Chattanooga wrote:

Chattanoogans should be proud of all the wickedly smart folks in this town that are working together to continue to make Chattanooga a leading progressive community. The cost of a gig is, more or less, a chicken and egg debate. What should be remembered is that the visionary leadership of EPB has caused Chattanooga to propel itself into the 21st century in a way unlike any other community in the U.S. There are thousands of U.S. cities that are envious of the fiber/ smart grid that has been deployed in our community, proven by the fact that over 1,100 cities competed to be Google's first fiber community. To compare Google's "announced" prices in Kansas City (which are in fact still in construction  and will likely take another 2-3 years before being fully deployed) to EPB's prices is not a fair comparison. While Google is adopting an overall marketing strategy for a global company, EPB has to follow a business model. EPB's 40,000+ customers have a minimum service of 30mbps symmetrical service, an astonishingly high connectivity that's faster than the vast majority of the rest of the world; the price for this service is extremely competitive. While there is almost no argument that the next generation of the internet will be super high speed networks, our community is very fortunate to be one of the leading cities of the world. As to the cost of a gig, as with almost all technological ventures, the cost will decrease as the demand increases. Hopefully, Chattanooga companies will be the leaders in creating this demand.”

Others will argue, why bother with a Gigabit debate when there currently is virtually no audience for these speeds given today’s applications, for which 12-14 Mbps are adequate.  But fiber companies and application developers are seriously looking at it as a game changer. As passionate as this debate can get now, it will in a very few years become commonplace, especially if the price can drop to meet demand. 

While breath-taking fast Gigabit enabled networks are available to educational institutions, and large businesses, and even governments, home use is the next frontier. For instance Santa Monica’s 10 Gigabit network is not available for general public use as its dedicated exclusively for business use. However, the reality is that since 1999 many Local Area Networks have been able to run Gigabit Ethernet and are in place now to service hundreds of millions of people, but very few gigabit applications exist. I have been told that it’s ironic that Gigabit optical transceivers are actually more economical than 100 Meg transceivers which would add to the argument to deploy Gigabit whenever new fiber-optic networks are installed. However current computers and routers aren’t built to sustain Gig-enabled transfers and until affordable end-to-end Gigabit-enabled applications are commonplace, this chicken or egg debate will continue. 

But this will not hold back early adopter cities seeking the competitive edge to attract foreign direct investment and to develop, attract and keep the talent that these cities need in a highly knowledge based global economy. Many are betting on Gigabit-enabled environments as the game changer for the coming decade.

So what’s your Gig? 

Cities around the world are lining up to follow in the footsteps of Gigabit-enabled Intelligent Communities like Chattanooga, Seoul, Hong Kong, Toronto, Vancouver and Bristol, Virginia. 

In North America we are seeing cities like Seattle; Kansas City; Lafayette, Louisiana;  East Lansing, Michigan; Morristown Tennessee; Burlington Vermont;  Springfield, Illinois;  Fresno, California; Omaha; Minneapolis;  Tullahoma, Tennessee, Cedar Falls, Iowa;  Chicago;  San Francisco; Austin, Texas; San Leandro, California; Provo, Utah; Lawrence, Kansas; Wilson, North Carolina;  Melrose, Minnesota; and Rural Central Missouri deploying or positioning themselves for heart-pounding speeds at 1024 Mbps.

Hold on to your hats, the speeds in your city will only get faster.

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Barry Edwards    |    Commented September 19, 2013

Epb in Chattanooga has lowered their prices for a Gig to $70 a month.

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About the Intelligent Community Forum
The Intelligent Community Forum is a think tank that studies the economic and social development of the 21st Century community. Whether in industrialized or developing nations, communities are challenged to create prosperity, stability and cultural meaning in a world where jobs, investment and knowledge increasingly depend on advances in communications. For the 21st Century community, connectivity is a double-edge sword: threatening established ways of life on the one hand, and offering powerful new tools to build prosperous, inclusive and sustainable economies on the other. ICF seeks to share the best practices of the world's Intelligent Communities in adapting to the demands of the Broadband Economy, in order to help communities everywhere find sustainable renewal and growth. More information can be found at

Robert Bell
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.

John Jung
ICF co-founder John G. Jung originated the Intelligent Community concept and continues to serve as the Forum's leading visionary. Formerly President and CEO of the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance and Calgary Economic Development Authority, he is a registered professional urban planner, urban designer and economic developer. He leads regular international business missions to US, European, Asian, Indian and Australian cities, and originated the ICF Immersion Lab program. John is a regular speaker at universities and conferences and serves as an advisor to regional and national leaders on Intelligent Community development. The author of numerous articles in planning and economic development journals, he has received global and Toronto-based awards for his work in collaboration and strategic development and sits on numerous task forces and international advisory boards.

Louis Zacharilla
ICF co-founder Louis Zacharilla is the creator and presenter of the annual Smart21, Top Seven and Intelligent Community Awards and oversees ICF's media communications and development programs. He is a frequent keynote and motivational speaker and panelist, addressing audiences of tech, academic and community leaders around the world, and writes extensively for publications including American City & County, Continental Airline's in-flight magazine and Municipal World. His frequent appearances in the electronic media have included both television and radio in South Korea, China and Canada. He has served as an adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York and is a Guest Lecturer at Polytechnic University's Distinguished Speaker Series. He holds a Masters Degree from the University of Notre Dame.