The “Chattanooga Choo Choo” sign over the old terminal station is purely decorative, a throwback. Since the Southern Railroad left town in the early 1970s, the southeastern Tennessee city has been looking for an identity that has nothing to do with a bygone big band song or an abandoned train. It’s finally found one in another huge infrastructure project: The Gig.
The first thing you see at the Chattanooga airport is a giant sign that says “Welcome to Gig City.” There are advertisements and flyers and billboards for the Gig in the city’s public parks. The city’s largest building is dedicated to the Gig. Years before Google Fiber, Chattanooga was the first city in the United States to have a citywide gigabit-per-second fiber internet network. And the city’s government built it itself.
At a time when small cities, towns, and rural areas are seeing an exodus of young people to large cities and a precipitous decline in solidly middle class jobs, the Gig has helped Chattanooga thrive and create a new identity for itself.
It’s an internet boomtown, and Chattanooga has turned itself from what could have been another failing mid-sized city into a startup hub that’s filling up with exiles from Manhattan, San Francisco, and Austin.
Chattanooga and many of the other 82 other cities and towns in the United States that have thus far built their own government-owned, fiber-based internet are held up as examples for the rest of the country to follow. Like the presence of well-paved roads, good internet access doesn’t guarantee that a city will be successful. But the lack of it guarantees that a community will get left behind as the economy increasingly demands that companies compete not just with their neighbors next door, but with the entire world…
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