Chattanooga and Other Fast-Fiber Cities Are Grabbing Companies, and Jobs

Chattanooga, Tenn.; Dublin, Ohio; and Lake Nona, Fla., are among metro areas that have secured early winners from investments in Internet networks that provide the blazing 1-gigabit speeds required by growing businesses. These businesses bring enormous appetites for bandwidth to fuel cutting-edge advances from mobile apps to design of new manufactured products to the support required to expand call centers. Detroit; Arlington, Va.; and Burlington, Vt., are among other cities trying to join their ranks.

Meanwhile, some other cities are becoming pioneers in setting themselves up as “smart” municipalities by moving toward creation of urban areas covered with Internet-connected devices that control citywide systems such as transit and lighting, and collect data to make the city’s entire infrastructure perform better.

“Chattanooga’s $370 million network has generated between $865 million and $1.3 billion in economic and social benefits, while creating between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs.”

As cities such as Chicago and Pittsburgh build out networks of sensors that could turn them into meccas for the “Internet of Things,” the nature of a city’s digital infrastructure is bound to become a more and more important consideration to CEOs making expansion and site-selection decisions.

“Our mayor,” Andy Berke, “is fond of saying that we have the fastest, most pervasive, cheapest Internet in the western hemisphere,” Charles Wood, vice president of economic development for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, told CEO Briefing. “That has helped drive a lot of attention and a lot of activity. From there, we’ve leveraged it from an economic-development standpoint to a broader level, and a lot of it is built around entrepreneurship and innovation.”

Chattanooga, in fact, has become known as “Gig City” for becoming first in the nation to build a community-wide fiber-optic network capable of delivering 1-gigabit Internet speeds And lately, EPB, the municipal fiber-optics utility, became the first U.S. municipality to offer 10-gigabit Internet service across a large community-wide territory.

This focus on fiber directly lured two 3D-printing startups to Chattanooga: Branch Technologies, a building-systems concern; Feetz; a digital cobbler; and 3-D Ops, which makes custom three-dimensional models of the human heart for surgery practice. Meanwhile, larger and pre-existing companies such as Claris Networks have set up data-center operations in Chattanooga because of the 1-gig network, Wood said.

EPB said that creating the Chattanooga network cost about $370 million, but a new University of Tennessee study found that, six years after it opened, the fiber-optic infrastructure has generated from $865 million to $1.3 billion in economic and social benefits while creating between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs.

Meanwhile, in Dublin, a Columbus suburb, has leveraged $5.5 million in investments in 125 miles of fast fiber into at least a $35-million return on investment, especially from “gains in employment and thus tax revenues that have resulted from companies expanding or relocating in Dublin to take advantage of its incredible connectivity,” the city said.

As digital technologies drive more and more of the U.S. economy, fast-fiber cities clearly will have an upper hand.

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Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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