What happens when unprecedented innovation meets unprecedented opportunity? Billions in economic activity, millions in research funding and one very productive partnership.
In 2010, local utility and broadband provider EPB brought Chattanooga the nation’s first 1-gigabit internet connection. In 2015, a UTC scientist began researching the potential of smart electric grids to harness high-speed broadband to address urban environmental problems such as pollution and congestion.
That scientist, Mina Sartipi, founded and remains director of the Center for Urban Informatics and Progress at UTC. Created in 2015, CUIP has since achieved a string of research funding awards for successive “Smart Cities” projects that have won national and international recognition.
In April, Ms. Sartipi, also a UTC Guerry Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, was at a conference in Austin, Texas, when one big difference between that city and Chattanooga became obvious.
“None of us could get on our phones,” Ms. Sartipi said. “It wasn’t even that big of an event—maybe 200, 300 people were there—but nobody could get on their phone. There was no reception there.”
She explained that the problem was an overcrowded wireless network with too many people and phones.
Wireless access is so ever-present these days that you don’t notice it’s there until it’s not there. In August, EPB announced it’s taking its fiber-optic network from the 10-gig capacity it established in 2015 up to 25 gigs.
According to EPB, the need for faster networks is expected to grow 50 percent a year as cloud-based applications continue to expand. A 25-gig network’s capacity means more than 3,000 laptops can simultaneously and smoothly stream ultra-high video without “buffering” or lag, EPB said.
For now, the 25-gig network serves only the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Convention Center, but the goal is expansion across the EPB coverage area with good results all over the city. And in this case, what’s good for Chattanooga is expected to be very good for UTC and its urban-environment campus.
Leveraging the increase in speed
The University already uses EPB’s 10-gig network, and an increase to 25 gigs will increase efficiency and ease of use, said Vicki Farnsworth, UTC chief information officer and interim vice chancellor for finance and administration.
“It’s part of the evolution of moving things forward,” she said. “As the evolution happens, you can do more processing and sending of data.
“You’ll see more data being moved from lots of devices in real time. It can travel a lot further; you need less equipment because the bandwidth is so much bigger, and it will become more reliable.”
At this point, no campus technology has to be replaced for the 25 gigs, she said, and the bandwidth expansion won’t cause any disruption to online reception.
For CUIP, the faster network will be invaluable for expanding its computer network that keeps an eye on intersections in the city, Ms. Sartipi said.
As a result of record funding of $4.5 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation announced earlier this year and combined with $4.7 million from industry partners, UTC, Chattanooga city government and EPB, CUIP research will turn all of Downtown Chattanooga into an electric vehicle “testbed.”
Cameras are now at 10 intersections where the most automobile accidents occur. The DOT recently gave permission to expand that to more than 80 intersections, Ms. Sartipi said
"We have 33 cameras now because each intersection has three,” she explained. “Now it’s going to be almost 100 cameras.”
She said that the 25-gig network would make handling all that data from the additional cameras much easier.
“It’s going to be faster, and we’re not going to have such an issue in terms of the number of devices that are going to be used.”
A boon for esports
Esports at UTC also will benefit from the larger network. Along with students who play video games in their housing units, the University Center Esports and Gaming Facility inside the UC Game Room has several different video-game consoles that can be used by competitive teams.
The UTC “Call of Duty” team has been recognized as one of the best in the country, and there also are UTC teams for “Rocket League,” “League of Legends,” “Valorant” and “Apex Legends.”
Video gaming requires a lot of bandwidth and—while UTC has enough to handle campus esports—more is always welcome, said Tony Parsley, interim vice chancellor for information technology.
“The good news is UTC for a while now has had really good bandwidth supporting our faculty, staff and students,” he said. “Adding bandwidth only makes us that much better.
“UTC will do everything possible to leverage this additional bandwidth, especially around our esports program.”
In the College of Engineering and Computer Science, students and faculty often share research data between UTC and external researchers and partners. Some data needs to be instantly available on each side of the connection, and having more bandwidth will make that easier, said Daniel Pack, dean of the college.
“Whether it’s downloading files or software or whatever it may be, I think it will be a tremendous help for our students and faculty members who are working on research that involves real-time computation and interaction with people outside the college and outside the community,” Mr. Pack explained.
“Especially in science and engineering, there are simulations and real-time computation that’s needed to accomplish and execute the work.”
Having 25 gigs of bandwidth also could lead to new concepts and insights that aren’t even on the research radar, he said.
“It will allow us to not only identify what the future applications would be but also new applications that we haven’t thought about yet but will become available because we have this infrastructure,” Mr. Pack said.
The University with lightning-fast internet
As enrollment grows at UTC, more connectivity will be needed, Ms. Sartipi said. More students mean more cellphones, laptops and desktop computers, iPads, Bluetooth devices and more streaming services in campus housing.
“How many connected devices do you have at home per person? Phones or iPads or laptops, all of those things. Then think about all of that on campus,” she said.
“When we are talking about, all of a sudden, hundreds or thousands of devices needing connectivity, then that would become a challenge, and that’s how 25 gigs can support that.”
From 2010 to 2020, EPB’s fiber-optic network had a $2.7-billion economic impact in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, according to a study conducted by Bento Lobo, head of the Department of Finance and Economics in the Gary W. Rollins College of Business. The study further concluded that the network’s value exceeded its costs by more than $2.2 billion and saved or created 9,516 jobs in Hamilton County.
“From a business standpoint, there are just immense efficiencies in terms of time savings and productivity increases,” Mr. Lobo said. “There are healthcare benefits. There are telecommuting benefits. There are benefits to the education of our kids.”
He said the lightning-fast gig network in Chattanooga is also receiving attention from outside the city, which is a positive for everyone—including UTC.
“From a community standpoint, people who come in from elsewhere, they notice it. We take it for granted, but they notice it,” he said.
“When you couple that with the natural beauty of the area, this becomes a very attractive place to draw talent.”