A lazy sprawl of brick and mortar straddling the Tennessee River in orange and beige: At first glance, one could be forgiven for mistaking Chattanooga for any number of landlocked manufacturing towns. Like many of its postindustrial relatives, this city of 174,000 is in the midst of a protracted and irreversible economic transition. In the past two years alone, Dupont, Alstom, and MetalTek have all shut down manufacturing plants that once employed thousands of people across the surrounding Hamilton County, where economic anxiety runs high and Trump won by 16 points.
But Chattanooga doesn’t quite fit the tired narrative evoked in the president’s grim portrait of “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” This is a city with a plan.
Situated in the heart of the Great Appalachian Valley, Chattanooga is widely known by a silicon-tinged moniker that sounds a bit more Santa Clara: “Gig City,” a reference to “the Gig,” the city’s municipally owned fiber-optic network. Funded in part by a $111 million federal stimulus grant and maintained by the Electric Power Board (EPB), Chattanooga’s public electric utility, the Gig’s ambitions feel more collectivist—and more fundamental—than the superficial “disruption” on offer from private-sector techno-utopians.
In 2010, the Gig became the first network in the country to offer one-gigabit-per-second (Gbps) data speeds across its entire service area, which now top out at a mind-bending 10 Gbps. (At 10 Gbps, you can download a two-hour movie in about three seconds.) These speeds are even more impressive because they are symmetrical, which means downloading is as fast as uploading. Since it was laid across Chattanooga’s power grid seven years ago, fiber-to-home Internet service has been available at every home and business in the municipality.
This is an astounding result in the United States, where service is spotty and the average connection speed was just below 19 megabits-per-second (Mbps) at the start of 2017—lower than the federal definition of broadband. And Chattanooga has certainly reaped the rewards, nurturing its newfound status as a regional tech hub with numerous conventions and noteworthy startups like Skuid, a cloud-based UX platform, and Bellhops, an on-demand moving company. One economist estimated that the fiber infrastructure had generated as many as 5,200 jobs and as much as $1.3 billion in net economic and social benefits in its first five years of operation.
Another way the city has benefitted is through something called the “smart grid.” Since the EPB doubles as Chattanooga’s electric utility, and because its fiber-optic network was built on top of a preexisting power grid, the company has been able to monitor its electrical system in real time, greatly reducing the impact of outages by rerouting power almost instantaneously. The EPB estimates that the “smart grid” has decreased the duration of outage minutes by half, resulting in a citywide economic benefit of about $50 million per year. This capability will become increasingly important as climate change accelerates the frequency of outages caused by severe weather events.