Expanding Wi-Fi in Chattanooga

After years of technological growth and speculation, Chattanooga is finally offering a free public Wi-Fi service spanning several community locations across the city.

According to Lacie Stone, Chattanooga’s Director of Communications (as reported by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Sept. 2), “Workers are in the process of rewiring the existing Wi-Fi in city-owned buildings, and in subsequent phases will open up Wi-Fi in parks and other open spaces.”

Chattanooga took its first steps towards expansive Wi-Fi in 2009, when it earned a $111 million stimulus grant from the Federal Department of Energy to help build a “wireless mesh” of 580 routers to bring coverage to every area of the city. Supposedly, such an infrastructure could be utilized by on-duty police and other public officials, who often need information at a moment’s notice while on the go. The city-owned Electric Power Board of Chattanooga (EPB) was supported by city tax funds to make the vision happen.

By 2011, under extensive testing and the leadership of Mayor Ron Littlefield, the network was delivering 16 megabytes per second. Though the project gained heavy media attention, it also faced heavy criticism from detractors who questioned its cost-effectiveness and practicality. The original grid was known for its connectivity problems, and interest declined because of its government-only usage and funding from city tax-payers.

Even at this point, the fiber optic cables, which could transmit data at close to the speed of light and were built between nearly all the city’s corporate and government areas, were recognized for their potential to provide free internet access for everyone. However, EPB received several lawsuits from private cable and subscription internet providers such as Comcast and AT&T, who, despite their lack of hotspots in the city, claimed that free public Wi-Fi was unfair to their businesses and infringed on their legal “defined service areas.” The claims were dismissed by judges.

As Andy Berke took over as Mayor in 2013, the idea of all-encompassing, free public Wi-Fi access seemed a poor mistake of the past. The administration moved onto other projects and the Wi-Fi smart grid downsized.

One result of these developments, conflict notwithstanding, was the expansion of Comcast, Xfinity, and AT&T hotspots, which were offered to business clients in high traffic places such as shops and reception areas. The companies announced more than 500 access points to be rolled out starting last year, with a few complimentary hours per month per user.

Meanwhile, the “wireless mesh” evolved into “The Gig,” a vast, subscription-based network of fiber optic cables capable of providing streaming data two hundred times faster than most residences anywhere else in the country. The service was offered by EPB for $70 per month, and has become a part of Chattanooga’s increasing appeal to tech entrepreneurs and startup companies. As one of the only places in the Western hemisphere to offer a wireless network capable of streaming one gig per second, Chattanooga has earned the nickname, “Gig City.”

Now, Chattanooga is drawing on that heritage, and is working on the framework of those preexisting city cables to launch its widened free public access network. The Chattanooga Public Library, Fire Departments, City Hall, and other buildings are first on the agenda, with parks coming in a second phase shortly after. The city is hosting a naming competition for the service through its official website, which has closed for submissions but will reopen voting with the top five selected names next week. Though it does not provide Chattanooga the originally envisioned all-inclusive network, after five years, the announcement on September 2 from the CTFP represents the first sustainable model for the most wired city since interest in free public Wi-Fi began.