Sure: water & sewer, electricity, telephone service: but in the 21st Century some communities think of a public utility as a communications system.
It’s certainly that way in Chattanooga, Tennessee where the city-owned public utility for electric power also supplies a 600-square-mile area with cable television, landline phone and, mostly importantly, a full 10-gigabytes of broadband internet service.
Chattanooga became in 2010 the first city in the nation to offer residents and businesses that full gigabyte of high-speed broadband internet. It quickly became known as #GigCity. By 2015, the city was providing a full 10 gigabytes of high speed internet access. Today, it supplies 90,000 Chattanooga residents and businesses with the highest speed internet in the nation (as much as 50 times faster than the national average).
The internet as a public utility.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) formally adopted a policy in 2015 declaring the internet in the U.S. a public utility just like water & sewer, electric service, telephone service, even interstate trucking. The concept is known as Net Neutrality and it prohibits for-profit corporations from controlling the internet and creating such mischief as setting up “fast lanes” where users are forced to pay higher prices for higher internet speeds while at the same time penalizing those who cannot afford to pay. (Imagine having to pay a higher price for hotter water.)
The FCC is today, under the Trump Administration, set to eliminate that policy and return the internet to the singular control of the major telecommunications corporations like Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and others who would, if the FCC follows through on its stated plan, essentially own the internet in the largest internet marketing in the world.
Except – maybe – in communities like Chattanooga where the municipal government sees the internet as an essential public utility just like electric service, water & sewer service.
GigCity gets its internet service from the city’s electric utility, the Electric Power Board or EPB.
Established as an independent board of the City of Chattanooga in 1935, EPB is a municipally-owned utility that provides electric power and fiber optic communications services as a means of promoting economic development and enhancing quality of life in Chattanooga.
EPB serves nearly 180,000 homes and businesses (with electricity) in a 600 square-mile area which includes greater Chattanooga, as well as parts of surrounding counties and areas of North Georgia.
The utility has also utilized its community-wide fiber optic network to deploy the most advanced and highly automated smart grid power management system in the nation. In recognition of EPB’s groundbreaking infrastructure, the Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are utilizing EPB’s smart grid as a national model for researching and developing best practices. EPB is also the first major power distribution utility to earn the USGBC’s PEER certification for having a highly automated, modernized electric power grid.
“For us, it’s a communications system,” explains John Pless, director of media relations for EPB. “Our whole system, our infrastructure, is all about communications. (The system) tells us when we have a (power) problem within seconds and we can re-route electric service (or cable TV or broadband) to areas affected and restore power (or cable TV or broadband).
EPB will also launch in July its first foray into providing electricity through solar power. Called Solar Share by the utility, the project will see the construction of nearly 4,500 solar panels capable of supplying 1.4 megawatts of electricity. It’s an experiment, perhaps a template for the future, but EPB customers will be able to make a one-time payment and buy a 20-year license giving them a credit on the monthly power bill equal to power generated by the solar panel for which they purchased the license.
It sounds complicated but it’s actually a bit like an solar power co-op: everyone pitches in and everyone benefits.
The drive to provide broadband internet for Chattanooga actually began in the mid-1980s when EPB realized it would need to seriously upgrade its aging electric grid.
“It became obvious to us quickly that rebuilding our infrastructure with fiber optic lines was the most cost-effective, most useful way to go,” Pless recounts.
Once the decision was reached to rebuild the electric grid with fiber optics it became clear the city could also eventually offer not only telephone service but cable television, too, and, eventually, high-speed internet.
“The movement toward city-wide broadband internet service actually began in a discussion at our Downtown Kiwanis Club among civic activists,” Pless said.
From that small discussion among civic-minded business owners grew what is today #GigCity.
A bond issue and a $111 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, part of the Economic Stimulus Act of of 2008, paid for the infrastructure rebuild and by 2010 EPB – the City of Chattanooga – was offering 1,000 megabyte-per-second high speed internet service to all its business and residential electric customers.
Since then, #GigCity has resulted in the creation of a boom-town start-up business sector, the creation of thousands of new jobs and an estimated $6 billion business investment infusion into the community. EPB’s internet service has garnered 55 percent of the market in Chattanooga and gaining every day.