Ahead of Google Fiber launch, here’s what another gig city has already learned

Is tech company incubator Lamp Post grooming the next Facebook?

Google plans to launch its fiber to the home network in Kansas City on Thursday with the goal of seeing what people there can do with a gigabit connection. But as one city that already has a gigabit network can tell you, the answer so far may be, “Not much.”
For the last two years, Chattanooga, Tenn.’s public utility (EPB) has offered customers a gigabit fiber-to-the-home connection costing roughly $300 a month, so I touched base with a group of investors and entrepreneurs who have built a program to try to see what people can do with that fast a connection. So far, the limits of equipment, the lack of other gigabit networks (much of the Internet is reciprocal so it’s no fun if you have the speeds to send a holographic image of yourself but no one on the other end can receive it) and the small number of experiments on the network have left the founders of the Lamp Post Group underwhelmed.
This was the first year that Jack Studer, a partner with the Lamp Post Group, a tech incubator in Chattanooga, and Brian Trautschold, a cofounder at Akimbo, opened their doors to two groups of people from outside the city excited by the prospect of a gigabit connection. The two welcomed a group of 21 entrepreneurs on May 14 and a group of 11 students on June 11 into the incubator. The aim was to get both groups thinking about gigabit applications and opportunities. While Studer was reluctant to out the business plans developed by the entrepreneurs ahead of the upcoming demo day (August 9, for those who want to check it out), he shared some of the things the students were developing. They include:

  • Instant universal translation
  • Facial recognition in real time at a point of sale or security point
  • A better, easier to use electricity systems for the home that incorporates the smart grid as well as device management for consumers
  • Workstation apps as a service, such as delivering Photoshop or other CPU-intensive applications via the cloud

Many of these are interesting, but as most people are probably thinking, none of them look like the killer app for a gigabit network. And Studer is well aware of this. He said that so far he’s happy with the program, but he does wish it could see more people participate and produce bigger ideas that really take advantage of the network. In our conversation he explained what needs work.
More brains, more people: This is the first year of the program, and Studer explains that the 30 people who are in the program so far aren’t really enough to generate the kind of creative firepower to remake the world with a gigabit in mind. “We have 30 people, but we need 200 to 300,” Studer said. He also said it was challenging to get mentors to come from outside Chattanooga, especially people from tech hubs, to discuss ideas and influence the people. He said the program has had some good people, but not the quantity he had hoped for.
Better equipment: Another problem with delivering a gigabit is that most computers can’t handle the speeds. “We have bought a lot of SSDs this summer,” quipped Studer, because hard drives aren’t fast enough to store the bits coming in via a gigabit pipe. Think of it like trying to fill a paper cup from a fire hose.
More gigabit users out in the rest of the world: The other challenge, which Studer and I had discussed prior to beginning the program, was a lack of gigabit connections elsewhere in the country. Prior to bringing in entrepreneurs and students he was looking for someone to test out Chattanooga’s network connections and equipment, but it was hard to find people, and some weren’t clear what he was trying to test exactly. And as Google builds its network and other efforts such as the Gig.U university broadband plans come online, this problem may gradually disappear.

New tech to cram more bits in your hertz.

Clearly Google may not have the challenges of finding smart people to play with its network — it’s a company that has plenty of genius employees as well as the clout to bring in engineers and geeks from any other tech firm it wants. It builds its own gear so the technical challenges experienced by Chattanooga may not be as much of an issue for the search giant, but the experience in Chattanooga indicates that the mentality of “If you build it, the gigabit applications will come,” may require both more effort and time than people realize.
Of course, apps and broadband speeds evolve in fits and spurts, so it’s hard to say what will trigger the next killer app or when. All we can say for sure is we won’t get gigabit apps until we have gigabit networks. Until then, we can have fun, filling up those pipes by running concurrent gaming and video streams.