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Geek Power: Igniting Chattanooga's Superfast Network

A group in Chattanooga is searching for new business ideas that take advantage of the city's trailblazing 1-gigabit-per-second internet speeds.

Jack Studer wants to fax you a sandwich. And he's hoping that, eventually, the pack of tech geniuses, visionaries, and entrepreneurs that make up Chattanooga's inaugural Gig Tank will help him do so.

The Gig Tank, organized by Studer and other Chattanooga businesspeople, is a summer-long workshop and competition that brings together fledging tech businesses and talented college students and asks them to unleash their creativity on Chattanooga's gigabit-per-second fiber optic network—the first of its kind in the country.

"We will be pushing them to form teams, target and attack problems, pitch ideas, build concepts and prototypes," says Brian Trautschold, co-founder of Chattanooga media streaming company retickr and one of the Gig Tank organizers.

While Google has recently made waves with its plans to wire up Kansas City with a 1 Gbps fiber optic system, Chattanooga is already experimenting with what that kind of infrastructure can do. And the results have been encouraging: The super-fast service has sparked technological innovation and helped lure hundreds of jobs to the city.

Chattanooga's utility company, EPB, first flipped the switch on the 1-Gig network in 2010. According to utility company spokeswoman Danna Bailey, the fiber optic network was installed as part of EPB's plan to turn its power-delivery system into a "smart grid," a network that would use digital communication to monitor and manage the electricity supply.

But pretty soon, EPB realized that the new network could also be used to offer very-high-speed internet access to, well, everyone. And thus began Gig City, the name that is being used to brand the city as an up-and-coming center of business and innovation.

"We're in that cusp moment where we have something good and our job is to create a vital environment where new ideas and new applications can come forward," said J.Ed. Marston, spokesman for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

How fast is 1 gigabit per second, really? For starters, it is 200 times faster than the average connection in the United States, which clocks in at about 5 megabits per second, according to several recent studies. Applications like real-time medical consulting and large, high-definition video conferences are possible by 100 megabits per second—one-tenth of the speed EPB offers.

Entrepreneur Don Lepard is using the super-speed infrastructure to jump start a new endeavor for his business, Global Green Lighting. The company was manufacturing and selling energy-efficient LED lights, until Lepard realized that his product was quickly becoming a commodity. So he decided to try something new.

Working with the city, Lepard created a system that not only replaces standard outdoor lighting with money-saving LEDs, but also uses cloud computing to allow municipal workers to monitor and control the lights from any computer with an internet connection. Maintenance staff can target trouble spots immediately rather than waiting for someone to report an outage. Police officers can use computers in their cruisers to turn up the lights before entering a suspicious area or set off flashing lights to signal an emergency.

The system was deployed as a pilot program in one downtown park and was such a success that Lepard's company is now installing it city-wide. Between the efficiency of the LED lights and the improved metering capabilities, the city stands to shave $2.7 million off its annual $3.7 million electricity bill, Lepard estimated. And Global Green Lighting is moving its manufacturing operation from China back to the United States, bringing an expected 250 jobs to Chattanooga, Lepard said.

"We’re just mesmerized by what’s happening to us," he said.

And those aren't the only jobs coming to town as the result of the new network. In November 2010, home repair service company HomeServe USA announced that it would be opening a call center in the city, providing 140 jobs. Then, in April, the company released plans to expand and add another 100 positions.

Claris Networks, a cloud computing company based in Knoxville, expanded into Chattanooga in September 2011 and quickly added 10 jobs. Delighted with the technology and people, the company now plans to shift server capacity to Chattanooga and at least triple its staff, said senior vice president of corporate development Walt Robinson.

The Gig Tank is aimed at helping keep this momentum going.

The network has spawned some rather fanciful thinking, Studer said—see sandwich-faxing—but for now, at least, the participants' plans are slightly less whimsical. Ideas include collaborative, super-high-def sports broadcasts; education technology applications; and antivirus protection for the day when our appliances as well as our computers are online.

"We expect by the end of the summer to have some incredible innovation and companies to launch," Trautschold said.

Students are coming to the Gig Tank from schools including Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Participating entrepreneurs hail from New York, Texas, and even Northern Ireland. Some have already launched start-ups, others are still in the idea-on-the-back-of-a-napkin phase, said Sheldon Grizzle, the organizer of the business side of the Gig Tank.

Each business chosen to participate receives $15,000 in investment capital; at the end of the summer, the entrepreneurs with the best, most innovative business plan will take home an additional $100,000. The best student innovation hatched over the summer will win a prize of $50,000. More details about the teams' projects and progress will be coming in the weeks and months ahead.

And though it may be many years before we start receiving lunch in our inboxes, the members of Chattanooga's technology and business communities are optimistic about the changes going on in their city.

"It’s been a really exciting few years, seeing the people in Chattanooga start to take the entrepreneurs seriously," Grizzle said. "It's a sign of good things to come."

Chattanooga photo courtesy of Lawson Whitaker. Gig Tank photo courtesy of Gig Tank.

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