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Chattanooga Goes High Speed

The city is one of a few in the country to offer Gigabit Internet services, but expanding those services presents legal challenges.

Chattanooga residents and businesses are enjoying a service that most people in the western hemisphere only dream about: Internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second.

Downloading a two-hour, high-definition movie takes just 33 seconds, and the city’s medical researchers are using high-speed Internet to build 3D models of aneurysms that can assist surgeons as they plan for operations, according to The Guardian.

“You don’t see many midsized cities that have the kind of activity that we have right now in Chattanooga,” Mayor Andy Berke told the news outlet. “What the Gig did was change the idea of what our city could be. Midsized Southern cities are not generally seen as being ahead of the technological curve. The Gig changed that. We now have people coming in looking to us as a leader.

Few cities boast Internet speeds of up to 1Gbps. Lafayette, La., and Bristol, Va., are in that minority.

Chattanooga far outpaces the national average for upload and download speeds. A large telecommunications provider doesn’t provide the service, but rather a nonprofit agency of the city of Chattanooga, EPB (formerly the Electric Power Board). Therein lies the problem.

Roadblocks to Expanding Gigabit Internet services

Laws in 19 states, including Tennessee, prevent or discourage communities from deciding at a local level whether to invest in wired telecommunications networks, according to data from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. In Chattanooga, the board cannot extend Internet services to residents outside of its current coverage area.

EPB wants to expand broadband services to customers in surrounding communities, but says state laws restrict the board from moving forward with any plans, the board noted in a petition filed with the Federal Communications Commission. The city of Wilson in North Carolina has filed a similar petition.

How the FCC will respond is unknown, but USAToday notes that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is committed to removing barriers that hinder competitive broadband services.

“I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to preempt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband,” Wheeler wrote in a blog post. “Given the opportunity, we will do so.”

State laws aren’t the only roadblocks to Chattanooga’s vision for expanding high-speed Internet. What good is Gigabit service when it comes to doing business with entities outside of Chattanooga if they don’t have broadband services that match the city’s speed? While Chattanooga medical researchers are using the broadband network to build 3D models of aneurysms, “transmitting that information outside the city for a real-time diagnosis would mean relying on the antiquated cable networks,” The Guardian noted.

It’s better for us if it gets to more places in our community and in the country,” Berke says. And “if there’s no market for what happens on the Gig here, we are doing a lot of work for nothing.”

But Berke is hopeful that Gigabit Internet will eventually be the norm for other cities. Do you agree?

Wahyu b. Pratomo/thinkstock
Sep 02 2014

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