The Walnut Street Bridge is unmissable: 2,376 feet of gleaming metal perched atop five stone-gray pillars, spanning the Tennessee River between the aquarium and Coolidge Park. It's been one of Chattanooga, Tennessee's defining features since it was built in 1890.
In 2017, says Alexis Willis, director of small business and entrepreneurship at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, a surprising figure was spotted on that bridge during the city's fourth annual Ironman triathlon. "Twenty years ago," she marvels now, "no one would've dreamed that we'd have the prince of Bahrain competing in our downtown for an Ironman championship."
Willis knew from her day job that all of it--the Ironman, the prince, the multiple unfamiliar languages she overheard at Publix that same day--was there because of a different kind of infrastructure: the internet. In 2010, Chattanooga (current population: 181,000) became the first place in the U.S. to provide community-wide internet access at gigabit speeds. By 2015, that fiber connection was blazing along at 10 gigabits per second.
Such networks--Willis affectionately calls Chattanooga's the Gig--can be a boon for local entrepreneurs. Many modern startups are built on the ability to move significant amounts of data across the internet quickly. For videoconferencing, cloud storage, and real-time data analysis, fast and consistent internet is essential.
In Chattanooga, the Gig has brought a renaissance. This year, the area ranks No. 36 on Inc.'s Surge Cities list of best cities in the country to start a business. Charles Wood, the Chattanooga Chamber's vice president of economic development, puts it simply: "The Gig has allowed us to punch above our weight."
Following that playbook isn't cheap. To create the Gig, Chattanooga floated $169 million in bonds for its local utilities company, which also got a $111 million federal grant. Meanwhile, residents of a growing number of other small localities are getting super-fast internet through broadband providers. Those connections can be expensive--two, three, or four times the roughly $60 monthly cost of a standard connection. But entrepreneurs across the U.S. will tell you it's worth it.
Just ask Jerry Bennett, founder and CEO of Melbourne, Florida-based consulting firm Privateer IT. He and his wife both grew up in central Florida, and have long lived in Melbourne (population: 83,000), part of the Palm Bay metro area (No. 23 on the Surge Cities list). But his five-year-old startup works with federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Intelligence Agency--so his clients are spread across the country.
That's why he pays Charter Communications $120 per month for a gigabit connection, permitting the screen sharing and remote control of government devices that helped Privateer reach $2.2 million in 2018 revenue and No. 295 on this year's Inc. 5000. What would he do without that gigabit connection? "Shut down," he says. "I'm not being flippant. I simply could not run the business."
For entrepreneurs eager to leave the country's metropolises, small-town high-speed internet can be the enabler. Adam Petrilli founded tech startup NetReputation.com in New York City in 2014, and as he bootstrapped the business, his office and personal expenses ballooned.
On a whim, he moved the company and its four employees to Sarasota, Florida (population: 58,000), part of the North Port metro area (No. 34 on the Surge Cities list). Even with an expensive gigabit connection, the firm started saving $10,000 to $20,000 per month and earned the No. 208 spot on this year's Inc. 5000. "We're doing $500,000 of revenue per month," Petrilli says. "In New York City, that would not cover expenses."
Today, these plugged-in cities have big advantages over their lower-tech counterparts. But Chattanooga's Wood hopes the rest of the country can close the gap. "We don't want to be an island," he explains. "The whole point is being connected to others. We hope there are lots of Gig cities."