Lucy Beard and Nigel Beard, co-developers of Feetz, a 3-D shoe-printing company, work in Co.Lab’s space in Chattanooga in May 2014.Peter Moskowitz
But supporters of public or quasi-public Internet service are quick to point out that Chattanooga’s success might not be so easily replicable.
The Gig, which serves over 60,000 customers, was built because EPB decided to upgrade its power grid. The company’s main mission was to wire their customers’ homes with fiber optic cables that could communicate meter readings and manage power at a lower cost than the outdated systems used elsewhere. The fiber optic network also allowed EPB to reroute power during storms, helping the company prevent or quickly fix outages without the help of large crews.
The fast Internet, along with TV and phone service, essentially piggybacked on EPB’s new electrical grid.
Upgrading an electrical grid and providing fast Internet at the same time might work for some smaller cities, but for bigger ones, the idea of ripping up hundreds of miles of roads and rewiring huge apartment buildings and office towers is a nonstarter. A citywide, government-run broadband network in a place like New York City could be prohibitively expensive.
But perhaps the biggest challenge to the future of municipally owned broadband access is getting the idea past legislators and corporations used to the status quo.
Comcast has attempted to block EPB’s expansion twice, suing the company by saying EPB illegally subsidized its Internet service with money obtained through its electricity service. Those suits have been dismissed, but EPB is still facing an uphill battle from state lawmakers in its quest to expand service to customers just outside the Chattanooga city limits.
The company also faced a PR blitz when Comcast ran hundreds of ads in Chattanooga trying to persuade its customers to stay with the company or switch back from EPB.
The challenges faced by EPB might be a sign of things to come for other small local Internet providers: By some counts, as many as 20 states already have restrictions on municipalities’ stepping into the broadband game.
Still, dozens of smaller communities, from Springfield, Missouri, to Burlington, Vermont, have started offering municipally run broadband.
Municipal Internet supporters say providers like EPB can prevent the Internet market from becoming less competitive, which could cause speeds to decrease and prices to increase for many consumers.
“Chattanooga isn’t going to disrupt the whole business model, but the established players do have to look out,” said Co.Lab’s executive director, Mike Bradshaw. “They are going to have to rise to the challenge. And I think if you give the incumbents a higher bar, they’re going to reach for it.”