Only Hong Kong and a few other cities in the world offer such lightning-fast service, and analysts say Chattanooga will be the first in the United States to do so. “This makes Chattanooga — a midsized city in the South — one of the leading cities in the world in its digital capabilities,” said Ron Littlefield, the city’s mayor.
There is one caveat: the highest-speed service will cost $350 a month, a price that may appeal to some businesses but few households, even though the service will be offered to all the 170,000 homes and businesses EPB serves.
“We don’t know how to price a gig,” said Harold DePriest, chief executive of EPB. “We’re experimenting. We’ll learn.”
Chattanooga’s effort is the byproduct of an aggressive high-tech economic development plan in recent years, helped along by funds from the federal economic stimulus program. But it comes at a time of increasing debate among communities, countries and corporations about how best to pursue the next generation of broadband, a technology seen as the gateway to a new wave of Internet-based products and services.
The Obama administration presented its broadband strategy earlier this yearand set the goal of bringing broadband to 100 million American homes at download speeds of at least 100 megabits a second — a tenth of Chattanooga’s top speed — by 2020. The United States, according to studies, is a laggard among developed nations in broadband adoption and service speeds.
Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, and other leaders in technology and government point to the trailing broadband performance as a danger to American competitiveness that threatens to saddle the nation with an “innovation deficit” compared with other countries.
To help close the gap, Google pledged this yearto supply service at one gigabit a second to up to 500,000 people in the United States. The company says that 1,100 communities have applied, and Google will make its selection — one community, or a few — this year.
In announcing the program, Google offered a glimpse of the benefits of ultra-high-speed Internet service. “Imagine sitting in a rural health clinic, streaming three-dimensional medical imaging over the Web and discussing a unique condition with a specialist in New York,” its statement said. “Or downloading a high-definition, full-length feature film in less than five minutes. Or collaborating with classmates around the world, while watching live 3-D video of a university lecture.”
Such visions of new high-speed services in health care, entertainment, education and business are behind the ambitious national programs under way in countries like Australia and South Korea. Already a leader in high-speed broadband, Korea plans to offer one-gigabit-per-second service nationally by 2012.
Higher-speed Internet service, experts agree, is an important national goal, but it is less clear whether moving quickly to very-high-speed service is worth the cost. Much of the economic gain can be achieved, and consumer demand met, by moving on a more measured path, they say.
Verizon, for example, has invested billions of dollars to upgrade much of its network for fiber optic Internet service, at speeds of 15, 25 and 50 megabits per second. Those speeds are three to 10 times standard broadband service; the monthly charges are $50 for 15 megabits, $65 for 25 and $140 for 50. And the vast majority of Verizon’s fiber optic Internet customers, analysts say, choose the 15-megabit, $50-a-month service.
The demand for one-gigabit-per-second service could be minuscule, experts say. “I can’t imagine a for-profit company doing what they are doing in Chattanooga, because it’s so far ahead of where the market is,” said Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.
Even Mr. DePriest of EPB does not expect brisk demand for the one-gigabit service anytime soon. So why offer it? “The simple answer is because we can,” he said.