When Google Inc. selected Kansas City, Kansas, as the first recipient of its ultra-fast Internet network, the news made headlines around the country.
Yet Kansas City wasn't the first to have gigabit service. In fact, we were years behind. Before Google even announced its contest for the first city to get Google Fiber, Chattanooga, Tennessee, already had deployed its own fiber optic network.
We built it ... but will they come?
While “gigabit” was still a term used in tech-insider conversations, Chattanooga in 2009 was building a network. But Internet service wasn’t originally the end-product. The city had set out to improve its electric service.
“We had some extremely visionary leadership at the electric power board," Ken Hays, president of The Enterprise Center in Chattanooga, told Steve Kraske Friday on KCUR’s Up To Date. "They decided that we needed a smart grid. And to do that they needed communication system to have the electrical system talk and communicate."
A smart grid is an network that uses digital communications technology to detect and react to local changes in electricity usage.
With the help of some federal stimulus funding, Chattanooga built a fiber optic smart grid and consequently, every house that had electricity in a 600-square mile area in and around Chattanooga also could tap into the city's gigabit Internet service.
Initially, however, not many people took advantage of that opportunity.
“It was extremely slow to start,” Hays said.
High prices and lack of awareness kept Chattanoogans from getting excited about the product.
How Google changed things
When Google announced in 2010 that it would develop a new product that would deliver Internet speeds 100 times faster than any other service, people started paying attention.
More than 1,100 cities applied to be Google Fiber's first market, and all eyes landed on Kansas City, Kansas, when the Midwest city was selected.
Kansas City, in turn, looked to Chattanooga — to figure out what this whole fiber thing really meant.
“One of the interesting things was how Google entering into the game was able to cast a brighter light on what was happening in Chattanooga ... to get people to think about what else (fiber) can do,” Aaron Deacon, director of KC Digital Drive, told Kraske.
KC Digital Drive is an organization whose mission is to make Kansas City a digital leader and take advantage of its technology to improve the lives of its residents.
Chattanooga had originally built a network to improve electrical service, but Google came to Kansas City with a more entrepreneurial perspective. Google posed the question: What can we do with a gig?
Google brought national attention to the possibilities of gigabit-speed Internet. From there, a collaborative relationship began to grow between Kansas City and Chattanooga.
Big thinkers, entrepreneurs, and tech enthusiasts started coming to both cities to test new ideas. Kansas City saw the emergence of a Startup Village. Chattanooga launched Gigtank, an accelerator for startups who wanted to develop high bandwidth business applications.
“Two years ago, we would have never been able to attract the same people,” Hays said.
Sister cities moving forward
As both cities get a better idea of how they can utilize gigabit Internet, their focus has turned from what that can do with a gig to how they it can improve the lives of their residents.
Competition, for one, has helped service become more affordable. Kansas City now has four fiber providers in the area. Chattanooga has three.
Each city also is taking steps to achieve digital equity in their areas. Both are founding members of U.S. Ignite, an initiative that fosters the creation of next-generation Internet applications that provide transformative public benefit.
“One of the beautiful things that's happening ... is that we’re not looking to Washington to solve our problems, we’re working with more cross city collaborations,” Hays said.
As gigabit Internet reaches more cities across the nation, they’ll look to Kansas City and Chattanooga as models.
“I think we’re going to be continuing to figure it out. I think Kansas City and Chattanooga are first movers in this world,” Hays said.
Although each city took different paths to the gig, both are in step now as leaders in high-speed internet platforms.
Lisa Rodriguez is the associate producer for KCUR's Up To Date. Find her on Twitter @larodrig.