Fast Internet Can Lure Businesses, Says TN Entrepreneurship Advocate
Ultrafast broadband is increasingly a must-have for high-tech companies, especially those in telemedicine, 3D printing, and other emerging industries. But currently, connection speeds vary widely by location—states like Tennessee are home to cities that have built high-speed fiber Internet networks while other states, such as Wisconsin, are trying to play catch-up.
An Internet signal can travel a variety of paths to reach your wired or wireless device. It can arrive through a traditional cable modem and Wi-Fi router, be beamed down from a cellular tower, or come in via a point-to-point “fixed wireless” system, just to name a few common standards.
Ask most connectivity experts, though, and they’ll tell you that fiber-optic cables remain the gold standard for delivering reliably fast Internet.
In 2011, Chattanooga, TN, became the first U.S. city to offer its residents gigabit broadband, which is more than 15 times faster than the speeds typical cable modems can achieve today. As part of an agreement with the city, Chattanooga’s public utility, EPB, provides service over the fiber network it constructed. The federal government reportedly awarded $111.5 million in stimulus funding for the project.
Bristol, TN, soon repeated the feat, launching its own gigabit network in 2012.
Jill Van Beke said that what Chattanooga accomplished sent a clear message to businesses, politicians, and observers near and far.
“That’s a city that recognizes the value of technology and recognizes that things are moving forward,” Van Beke said. She’s director of entrepreneurship and innovation at Launch Tennessee, a public-private organization that supports early-stage businesses and economic development in the state.
In Chattanooga, where residents can receive gigabit service for $70 a month, the fast speeds have become a selling point, Van Beke said.
The same year the city brought its fiber network online, Claris Networks, a provider of cloud-computing services to small and mid-sized companies, expanded its operations in Chattanooga. At the time, Claris’ headquarters were over 100 miles away, in Knoxville, TN.
Taking advantage of the cutting-edge infrastructure nevertheless made sense to Dan Thompson, a manager at Claris who in 2011 told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that connectivity there was up to 10 times cheaper than in other cities, including Knoxville. (Claris has since been acquired by Birmingham, AL-based TekLinks).
Chattanooga’s fast Internet also led to the creation of Gigtank 365, which labels itself as an “accelerator for startups developing ultra high-bandwidth business applications.”
Van Beke said that the city’s broadband network encourages companies based in Chattanooga, as well as ones who come there for Gigtank, to think big.
“The [network] is a platform technology that entrepreneurs can come and play in, like a sandbox,” she said. “What Gigtank has done is really open the eyes of entrepreneurs, but also of the community, [to] what can be done with these high speeds. What would you do if speed were no obstacle?”
One of Gigtank’s graduates is Paradrop, a project that was born in 2013 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and went through the accelerator last summer. Paradrop is developing a “Wi-Fi router that hosts applications within the router itself,” the university said recently. That way, users can do things like stream Netflix without having to send data to the cloud and back, said Dale Willis, who worked on the concept when he was a grad student at UW-Madison.
Paradrop remains an active project under the leadership of Suman Banerjee, a professor in the university’s engineering and computer science departments. Willis, who traveled to Chattanooga to participate in Gigtank, is no longer involved, however. His latest venture is Curate, a Madison, WI-based startup that’s developing web-scraping software for digital marketers and business intelligence specialists.
On the whole, Internet speeds in Wisconsin are neither slow nor blazing-fast. Households in Madison that get service from Charter Communications can browse the Web at speeds up to 60 megabits per second for $40 a month. (A gigabit is equivalent to 1,000 megabits per second.) In Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city, one of the two dominant Internet service providers is Time Warner Cable. That company recently merged with Charter, so it seems likely that in the coming years, users in Milwaukee and Madison will pay similar rates for similar service.
Some local leaders in Wisconsin believe their cities should take matters into their own hands, as municipalities in Tennessee and other states have. In 2014, when I first wrote about high-speed Internet and fiber networks, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin explained that he and others were looking south in their effort to address the stranglehold cable companies, in particular Charter, had on the broadband market.
“As we look at other cities, particularly Chattanooga, we see some opportunities, which will address a number of these challenges,” Soglin told me.
Earlier this month, a report from a Maryland-based consultant projected that the cost of building a citywide fiber network in Madison could be between $143 million and $150 million, according to the Capital Times. Soglin and other leaders in the area have mentioned the possibility of using federal grants to pay some of the construction costs, as Chattanooga did with its nine-figure stimulus award.
A city committee that’s been studying options for providing faster and cheaper Internet service in Madison, and helped select the consultant that gave the cost estimate, reportedly will present key findings to the City Council in the fall.