Chattanooga’s not a big place. Nor is it particularly pretty or strategic. It’s the Hamilton of Tennessee, a river town at the nexus of railway and shipping routes. Known more for its manufacturing than its technology Chattanooga was famously described by Walter Cronkite in 1963 as the most polluted town in America.
But when the local power company, EPB, announced that it had installed fibre to most houses and that Chattanooga was the first town in the USA to offer one gigabit of downstream Internet, it suddenly hit a home run with media, entrepreneurs and tech corporations.
In 2010 EPA rolled out gigabit fibre to the home across 600 square miles. In all it introduced 8000 miles of fibre using two redundant 400GB rings. As a result entrepreneurs returned to the city, 6700 jobs were created and venture capital in the region grew five-fold. "Fibre has given us street cred and shown we're serious about innovation," says Sheldon Grizzle, founder of The Company Lab, a business incubator.
When he and his colleagues got a sniff of the forthcoming fibre roll out they conceived of Gigtank, a high-tech accelerator set up to exploit the ‘highest speed Internet in America.’
“We said we should start creating value when this tidal wave of fibre hits the rest of the country. We call it fibre-based innovation.’
Grizzle’s idea had early success when Alcatel Lucent backed Gigtank with a $100,000 cash prize for a nationwide competition. The aim: to find the best idea for exploiting this ultra-fast broadband. Alcatel also saw it as an opportunity to install its innovative ngConnect programme in Chattanooga. ngConnect is collaboration platform for companies to explore business ideas and applications that run on fibre and 4g networks.
The competition generated over 100 entries from across the USA and beyond. One of the winners was a Bulgarian start up, Hutgrip, which installs sensors on the old machinery of mid-sized manufacturing firms. The sensors send data to the cloud where it’s processed to anticipate breakdowns and optimise performance - the so-called ‘smart factory’.
Now in year two, Gigtank has modified the programme and re-signed Alcatel to offer a broader range of benefits. From the Gigtank website:
- Every team of two will receive $10,000 at the start of the program.
- Teams of 3-4 recieve $15,000 at the start of the program.
- Accepted teams will also be eligible to receive prototyping support, “in kind” and potentially capital funding when utilizing toolkit technologies. Alcatel Lucent’s Vice President of Emerging Technology Commercialization is the decision maker.
- Each team will also be considered for an additional $100,000 investment based on progress and opportunity.
Gigatank is not the only innovator to explore the new potential. Grizzle says his radiologist friend has just quit his office and runs his business from home where the resolution and reliability of internet is better than before. The city has used the fibre to run a wireless mesh for safety and security applications. Retail outlets are installing high-touch display systems.
“We’ve reversed the brain drain too.”
Richard Fraser, head of ngConnect in Australasia, says the Chattanooga experience is an early taste of what UFB could do in New Zealand. “I’d love for us to stop thinking about UFB as being only about downloading movies and sport. There’s a fantastic opportunity for Kiwi innovators to use this fibre network to create new products and services that the world really wants. The world is moving to fibre and New Zealand, thanks to the UFB rollout, could be at the forefront.”
Fraser says the ngConnect programme, launched earlier this year, is actively seeking members and plans to roll out a series of innovation workshops to develop more business ideas.