Downtown Chattanooga looks like a lot of postindustrial cities: wide streets, a mix of old brick buildings, and uninspired ’60s-era brutalism. Except there’s something here that many small downtowns do without these days: people. And many of them are here not just for the usual accoutrements of your average gentrified downtown—fancy restaurants, condos, and concert venues (though those do exist here), but for something more basic, and arguably much more important: the Internet.
In 2010, Chattanooga became the first city in the United States to be wired by a municipality for 1 gigabit-per-second fiber-optic Internet service. Five years later, the city began offering 10 gigabit-per-second service (for comparison, Time Warner Cable’s maxes out at 300 megabits per second). That has attracted dozens of tech firms to the city that take advantage of the fast connections for things like telehealth-app development and 3D printing, and it’s given downtown Chattanooga a vibrancy rare in an age when small city centers have been emptied out by deindustrialization and the suburbs.
The feat was made possible not by a tech giant but by the city’s municipal power company, EPB, which in 2007 set out to modernize the city’s power grid, and realized it could lay every customer’s home for fiber-optic cable at the same time. The near-decade-long experiment has worked: By offering gigabit connections at $70 a month and providing discounts for low-income residents, EPB has taken tens of thousands of customers from the Internet behemoth Comcast, which offers service that is about 85 percent slower at twice the price. EPB now serves about 82,000 people, more than half of the area’s Internet market. It’s been such a success that dozens of other towns and cities have begun their own municipal broadband networks, providing faster and cheaper service than private companies.
“Really, these last two years you’ve seen it pick up steam,” said Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). “It’s just going to keep on spreading.”
Six years ago, Chattanooga was the only city offering publicly owned 1-gigabit Internet service. Today, over 50 communities do, according to ILSR, and there are over 450 communities in the United States offering some form of publicly owned Internet service. Many municipal networks are in small towns and rural areas where private high-speed access is hard to come by. But several dozen are in cities like Chattanooga, where there are other, private options that tend to be much more expensive and slower than what governments have proven they can provide.
Even in places where private companies provide high-speed service, a public Internet option may prove increasingly vital to low-income residents. Internet inequality is a growing issue in the United States: Internet connections are often required for job applications, and seven in 10 teachers assign homework that requires broadband access, according to FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel; yet about one-third of low-income families don’t have high-speed access to the Internet in their homes. Part of the problem is geography: Private Internet companies have little incentive to lay cable to sparsely populated areas. But even bigger cities usually only have one or two options for private Internet access, and so companies like Comcast have little competition and therefore little incentive to make their services affordable for low-income families.