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Is that the Chattanooga YouTube?

idealog ufb - chattanooga youtube ?

There’s hope for Huntly yet.

‘The customer is always right’ is a poor business plan. I know it from personal experience. Almost all the products we’ve launched have been based on our own entrepreneurial hunches, Idealog included. Eight years on, I think we got it more right than wrong.

Most people know what they want once it’s been invented. The Walkman, the iPod and Spotify are great examples. Henry Ford said it best: “If I asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said a faster horse.”

I feel the same way about ultra-fast broadband. The opposition from telcos to the government’s plan for UFB was predictable: they were simply protecting their own networks. But I also meet stacks of non-telco business leaders who dismiss UFB as a vote-grabbing stunt or an investment in vapourware.

The story of Chattanooga shows they can’t be trusted. Chattanooga’s the Huntly of Tennessee, a river town at the nexus of railway and shipping routes. Known more for its manufacturing than its technology, it was famously described by Walter Cronkite in 1969 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 hit a home run with media, entrepreneurs and tech corporations.

In 2010 EPA rolled out gigabit fibre to the home across 600 square miles. As a result entrepreneurs returned to the city, 6,700 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,” said Sheldon Grizzle, founder of The Company Lab, a business incubator. 

There’s more to this success than just fibre. Chattanooga had engaged in a long-term community “visioning plan” and, in Grizzle’s view, “has an uncommon civic pride”. But high-speed internet has become the lightning rod for explosive growth in post-recession USA and helped reversed the long-standing Chattanooga brain drain.

There are plenty of knockers who will point out that a) we already have pretty fast broadband and b) most people will use a gig of cheap internet to join Quickflix and c) when you really get down it, you can’t eat fibre.

But we don’t know what will happen. Maybe it will be awesome. Countries and cities that have invested in fast, ubiquitous internet have experienced faster growth and increased efficiencies. A 2012 report by Ericsson, Arthur D. Little and Chalmers University of Technology across 33 OECD countries showed that doubling the broadband speed for an economy increases GDP by 0.3 percent.

In Stockholm, the fibre network Stokab has led directly to the creation of the Kista Science City, which hosts 1,000 ICT companies and around 24,000 employees, 6,800 university students and 1,100 ICT researchers – including Skype and Spotify. This experience has been repeated in Singapore, Helsinki and, as mentioned, Chattanooga.

Richard Fraser, head of ngConnect in Australasia, says Chattanooga 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.” I agree. A lot.

Vincent won many awards as a journalist with Metro magazine and The Independent Business Weekly and was twice named Editor of the Year by the Magazine Publishers’ Association for his role in founding Unlimited magazine. In 2004 he co-founded HB Media, which was later to become Tangible Media, and is a publisher at AUT Media, the publishing division of AUT University.

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