Exclusive: Chattanooga mayor credits city utility for bolstering broadband

Chattanooga, Tennessee is considered ahead of the game with multi-gig connectivity, as last year it introduced citywide 25-gig service for consumers and businesses. But how did its broadband initiatives begin?

In an interview with Fierce, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly noted the role local utility and broadband provider EPB has played in enhancing broadband access, adding “it also helps that we’re sitting on a key node, obviously, for fiber in the eastern U.S.”

“Municipal broadband is kind of an unusual animal, and we were the first city to do that, if I’m not mistaken, about 20 years ago,” he said. EPB turned up 1 Gbps service for Chattanooga in 2010, followed by a 10-gig offering in 2015.

To deploy 25-gig, EPB is leveraging Nokia’s 25G PON technology.

“When the provider is a city-owned utility, whose mission is really tied to economic development, and profits from our non-electric operations go back into our economic development, it becomes a nice recursive loop where we continue to reinvest in the network,” said Kelly.

He went on to say Chattanooga had a “very low growth rate” for the longest time. But around 25 years ago, city leaders got the idea to expand broadband service via an electric utility and they then “issued the bonds to build out the network.”

“As you might imagine, there was a lot of opposition from private providers who complained that we were competing with the private market,” said Kelly. “It kind of goes back to the debate on whether or not broadband should be a utility.”

Despite initial concerns that EPB might not get “requisite market share” or its customer service wouldn’t be up to par, Kelly stated “none of those things have proven to be true.”

He touted EPB has “one of the highest” utility customer satisfaction rates in the country with “almost 75% market share.”

Chattanooga’s fiber network was the starting point for the city’s efforts to optimize city operations. It then led to the development of smart city technologies, Kelly continued.

“Our university has a center for urban informatics and progress that is doing some pretty cutting-edge research using lidar on pedestrian, bicycle, automotive interactions and safety,” he said. Chattanooga has also established a real-time information center for law enforcement, placing cameras in key areas of the city.

Kelly noted Chattanooga is a mid-sized city, so while it’s not on the level of Boston, New York or Silicon Valley “yet,” it has a “strong entrepreneurial culture.” In December, tech company Qubitekk partnered with EPB to launch the first commercially available quantum network in the U.S.

“We are the only American city with large loops of dark fiber that can be used for testing. One way [quantum networking] works is by shooting individual photons across a network and testing states in two different areas,” he said. “China has quite a lot of research going on because the state owns large loops of fiber there, but we’re not aware of any other city in the United States where this is possible.”

Companies based in Chattanooga can leverage Qubitekk’s network to test quantum technology like cryptography and supercomputing, Kelly added.

He hopes other cities can mirror Chattanooga’s efforts, as the utility broadband model is “critical to the development of our people and our cities.”

“There’s a lot of opposition from the private market to that viewpoint, obviously,” said Kelly. “In the meantime, we will enjoy it as a competitive advantage.”