Fast Internet Is Chattanooga’s New Locomotive

February 10, 2014

By: Edward Wyatt
Via: The New York Times


CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — For thousands of years, Native Americans used the river banks here to cross a gap in the Appalachian Mountains, and trains sped through during the Civil War to connect the eastern and western parts of the Confederacy. In the 21st century, it is the Internet that passes through Chattanooga, and at lightning speed.

“Gig City,” as Chattanooga is sometimes called, has what city officials and analysts say was the first and fastest — and now one of the least expensive — high-speed Internet services in the United States. For less than $70 a month, consumers enjoy an ultrahigh-speed fiber-optic connection that transfers data at one gigabit per second. That is 50 times the average speed for homes in the rest of the country, and just as rapid as service in Hong Kong, which has the fastest Internet in the world.

It takes 33 seconds to download a two-hour, high-definition movie in Chattanooga, compared with 25 minutes for those with an average high-speed broadband connection in the rest of the country. Movie downloading, however, may be the network’s least important benefit.

“It created a catalytic moment here,” said Sheldon Grizzle, the founder of the Company Lab, which helps start-ups refine their ideas and bring their products to market. “The Gig,” as the taxpayer-owned, fiber-optic network is known, “allowed us to attract capital and talent into this community that never would have been here otherwise.”

Since the fiber-optic network switched on four years ago, the signs of growth in Chattanooga are unmistakable. Former factory buildings on Main Street and Warehouse Row on Market Street have been converted to loft apartments, open-space offices, restaurants and shops. The city has welcomed a new population of computer programmers, entrepreneurs and investors. Lengthy sideburns and scruffy hipster beards — not the norm in eastern Tennessee — are de rigueur for the under-30 set.

“This is a small city that I had never heard of,” said Toni Gemayel, a Florida native who moved his software start-up, Banyan, from Tampa to Chattanooga because of the Internet speed. “It beat Seattle, New York, San Francisco in building the Gig. People here are thinking big.”

But so far, it is unclear statistically how much the superfast network has contributed to economic activity in Chattanooga over all. Although city officials said the Gig created about 1,000 jobs in the last three years, the Department of Labor reported that Chattanooga still had a net loss of 3,000 jobs in that period, mostly in government, construction and finance.

EPB, the city-owned utility formerly named Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, said that only about 3,640 residences, or 7.5 percent of its Internet-service subscribers, are signed up for the Gigabit service offered over the fiber-optic network. Roughly 55 businesses also subscribe. The rest of EPB’s customers subscribe to a (relatively) slower service offered on the network of 100 megabits per second, which is still faster than many other places in the country.

Some specialists say the low subscriber and employment numbers are not surprising or significant, at least in the short term. “The search for statistical validation of these projects is not going to turn up anything meaningful,” said Blair Levin, executive director of Gig.U, a high-speed Internet project that includes more than three dozen American research universities. Mr. Levin cited “Solow’s paradox,” the 1987 observation by Robert M. Solow, a recipient of the Nobel in economic science who wrote that “you can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

Such is the case with many new technologies, Mr. Levin said. No one is going to design products that can run only on a one-gigabit-per-second network if no such networks exist, he said. But put a few in place, he added, and soon the supply of applications will drive a growing demand for the faster connections.

Chattanooga’s path to Gig City is part of a transformation that began long before most Americans knew the Internet existed. Named America’s most-polluted city in 1969 because of largely unregulated base of heavy manufacturing, Chattanooga has in the last two decades cleaned its air, rebuilt its waterfront, added an aquarium and become a hub for the arts in eastern Tennessee. In more recent years, an aggressive high-tech economic development plan and an upgrade of the power grid by EPB moved Chattanooga toward the one-gigabit connection.

In 2009, a $111 million federal stimulus grant offered the opportunity to expedite construction of a long-planned fiber-optic network, said David Wade, chief operating officer for the power company. (EPB also had to borrow $219 million of the network’s $330 million cost.) Mr. Wade said it quickly became apparent that customers would be willing to pay for the one-gigabit connection offered over the network.

Chattanooga has been joined in recent years by a handful of other American cities that have experimented with municipally owned fiber-optic networks that offer the fastest Internet connections. Lafayette, La., and Bristol, Va., have also built gigabit networks. Google is building privately owned fiber systems in Kansas City, Kan.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Austin, Tex., and it recently bought a dormant fiber network in Provo, Utah.

The systems are the leading edge of a push for ever-faster Internet and telecommunications infrastructure in a country that badly lags much of the world in the speed and costs of Web connections. Telecommunications specialists say that if the United States does not keep its networks advancing with those in the rest of the world, innovation, business, education and a host of other pursuits could suffer.

Even so, few people, including many who support the systems, argue that everyone in the country now needs a one-gigabit home connection. Much of the public seems to agree. According to Federal Communications Commission statistics, of the households where service of at least 100 megabits per second was available (one-tenth as fast as a gigabit), only 0.12 percent subscribed at the end of 2012. In Chattanooga, one-third of the households and businesses that get electric power from EPB also subscribe to Internet service of at least 100 megabits.

But just as few people a decade ago thought there would be any need for one terabyte of data storage on a desktop computer (more than 200 million pages of text, or more than 200 movies), even the most prescient technology gurus have often underestimated the hunger for computer speed and memory.

Fiber-optic networks carry another benefit, which is the unlikelihood that a potentially faster network will come along soon. Fiber optics can transmit data at close to the speed of light, and EPB officials say the technology exists for their network to carry up to 80 connections of 10 gigabits per second at once.

Those who use Chattanooga’s one-gigabit connection are enthusiastic. Mr. Gemayel, the Florida native who moved Banyan here from Tampa, first passed through Chattanooga in 2012, when he heard about an entrepreneurial contest sponsored by The Company Lab with a $100,000 prize. Banyan, which was working on a way to share real-time editing in huge data files quickly among far-flung researchers, won the contest. Mr. Gemayel returned to Tampa with his check.

But once there he discovered that his low-bandwidth Internet connection was hampering the development of his business. By the beginning of 2013, he had moved to Chattanooga.

Other companies have become Gig-related successes. Quickcue, a company that developed a tablet-based guest-management system for restaurants, began here in 2011 and over the next two years attracted about $3 million in investments. In December, OpenTable, the online restaurant reservations pioneer, bought Quickcue for $11.5 million.

Big technology dreams do not always pan out, of course, and Chattanooga is familiar with failed experiments. The city spent millions of dollars in the last five years to build a citywide Wi-Fi network, known as the “wireless mesh,” intended for use by residents and city agencies. It sits largely unused, and its utility has largely been usurped by 4G wireless service.

Few people here would say that the Gig has even begun to be used to its fullest. “The potential will only be capped by our selfishness,” said Miller Welborn, a partner at the Lamp Post Group, the business incubator where Banyan shares office space with a dozen other start-ups. “The Gig is not fully useful to Chattanooga unless a hundred other cities are doing the same thing. To date, the best thing it’s done for us is it put us on the map.”

For all the optimism, many boosters are aware there are limits to how far the Gig can take the city, particularly as it waits for the rest of the country to catch up.

“We don’t need to be the next Silicon Valley,” Mayor Andy Berke said. “That’s not who we’re going to be, and we shouldn’t try to be that. But we are making our own place in the innovation economy.”

Correction: February 7, 2014
An article on Tuesday about the high-speed broadband Internet service available in Chattanooga, Tenn., misspelled, in some editions, the surname of the co-founder of Banyan, a software start-up that moved there to take advantage of the fast connection. He is Toni Gemayel, not Gemeyal.

Disruptions: How Driverless Cars Could Reshape Cities

July 9, 2013

By: Nick Bilton
Via: The New York Times


SAN FRANCISCO — By now, seeing one of Google’s experimental, driverless cars zipping down Silicon Valley’s Highway 101, or parking itself on a San Francisco street, is not all that unusual. Indeed, as automakers like Audi, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz make plans for self-driving vehicles, it is only a matter of time before such cars become a big part of the great American traffic jam.

While driverless cars might still seem like science fiction outside the Valley, the people working and thinking about these technologies are starting to ask what these autos could mean for the city of the future. The short answer is “a lot.”

Imagine a city where you don’t drive in loops looking for a parking spot because your car drops you off and scoots off to some location to wait, sort of like taxi holding pens at airports. Or maybe it is picked up by a robotic minder and carted off with other vehicles, like a row of shopping carts.

Inner-city parking lots could become parks. Traffic lights could be less common because hidden sensors in cars and streets coordinate traffic. And, yes, parking tickets could become a rarity since cars would be smart enough to know where they are not supposed to be.

As scientists and car companies forge ahead — many expect self-driving cars to become commonplace in the next decade — researchers, city planners and engineers are contemplating how city spaces could change if our cars start doing the driving for us. There are risks, of course: People might be more open to a longer daily commute, leading to even more urban sprawl.

That city of the future could have narrower streets because parking spots would no longer be necessary. And the air would be cleaner because people would drive less. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 30 percent of driving in business districts is spent in a hunt for a parking spot, and the agency estimates that almost one billion miles of driving is wasted that way every year.

“What automation is going to allow is repurposing, both of spaces in cities, and of the car itself,” said Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, who specializes in robotics and drones.

Harvard University researchers note that as much as one-third of the land in some cities is devoted to parking spots. Some city planners expect that the cost of homes will fall as more space will become available in cities. If parking on city streets is reduced and other vehicles on roadways become smaller, homes and offices will take up that space. Today’s big-box stores and shopping malls require immense areas for parking, but without those needs, they could move further into cities.

The Autonomous Intersection Management project, created by the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, imagines cities where traffic lights no longer exist but sensors direct the flow of traffic. Although a video showing off the automated traffic intersection looks like total chaos, the researchers insist that such intersections will reduce congestion and fuel costs and can allow cars to drive through cities without stopping.

Of course, getting to a utopian city will take a little longer than circling the block looking for a spot. A spokesman for Audi said a fully automated car would not be available until the end of the decade. And the regulatory issues to be addressed before much of this could come true are, to put it mildly, forbidding.

But the pieces are starting to fall into place, at least enough to excite future-minded thinkers. Last year, Jerry Brown, the governor of California, signed legislation paving the way for driverless cars in California, making it the third state to explicitly allow the cars on the road. And federal agencies are starting to consider their impact. In May the Transportation Department made its first formal policy statement on autonomous vehicles, encouraging cities to allow testing of driverless cars.

But to some, this promise — or overpromise as the case may be — sounds familiar.

“The future city is not going to be a congestion-free environment. That same prediction was made that cars would free cities from the congestion of horses on the street,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and a member of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. “You have to build the sewer system to accommodate the breaks during the Super Bowl; it won’t be as pretty as we’re envisioning.”

Mr. Smith has an alternative vision of the impact of automated cars, which he believes are inevitable. Never mind that nice city center. He says that driverless cars will allow people to live farther from their offices and that the car could become an extension of home.

“I could sleep in my driverless car, or have an exercise bike in the back of the car to work out on the way to work,” he said. “My time spent in my car will essentially be very different.”

“Driverless cars won’t appear in a vacuum,” Mr. Smith said. Other predictions for the future city imagine fewer traditional-looking cars. Taking their place will be drones and robots that deliver goods.

Oh, and that food-delivery car double-parked outside? That, Mr. Calo said, will be replaced by a delivery drone.

Fight Flu With Tobacco

March 20, 2013

By: Katharine Gammon
Via: Wired


This flu season has been a particularly bad one. But an innovative method for making vaccines promises an easier and quicker response to pandemics—thanks to good ol’ tobacco. Sounds healthy, right? Currently, the majority of the 130 million seasonal flu vaccine doses administered in the US every year are made using live chicken embryos. But the process is costly, time-consuming, and requires a lot of eggs.

So Medicago, a Canadian pharmaceutical company, is testing a new idea: Coax tobacco plants into expressing the proteins to make vaccines. Last year Darpa challenged the firm to make 10 million doses in a month. Medicago succeeded, proving it can respond quickly to a new outbreak—much faster than the six months required for egg-based vaccines. This is how the tobacky gets wacky.

10 Companies Chasing Innovations That Really Matter

March 19, 2013

By: Marcus Wohlsen
Via: Wired


PayPal co-founder Max Levchin faced some flak recently when he announced he was starting a new company in the already crowded field of digital payments. Levchin is one of several Silicon Valley luminaries who have talked big about the tech industry’s timidity. So starting yet another payments company seemed decidedly unambitious.

Yet plenty of companies out there are still taking a run at the next moonshot. Their technologies don’t let you share photos or offer you a deal on your next manicure. Instead, these companies could change the world in deep ways by solving tough problems, rather than the kind of “problems” too many startups make up as justifcations for the “solutions” they’re trying to sell. Not that photo-sharing isn’t great (Levchin did that, too). Unlike what the companies that follow are trying to do, however, it’s not exactly shooting for the moon.

Above: Emotiv Lifescience

You don’t get much closer to a moonshot than “let’s build a machine that reads people’s minds.” Even if Emotiv Lifescience’s brainwave scanner was just for use as a videogame controller, the company’s aspirations would still be ambitious. But when you start talking about a brain-controlled wheelchair, you’re entering the territory of technology that matters.

Photo: Emotiv


Immumetrix

While still a grad student, Immumetrix scientist Christina Fan developed a way to diagnose Down syndrome in a fetus through a simple test of the mother’s blood, rather than the far riskier, unpleasant use of amniocentesis. She and her colleagues are working to perfect the technique, as well as developing ways to use high-speed DNA sequencing to analyze individuals’ immune systems for the eventual development of custom treatments.

Fan says: “In the far future, knowledge about the immune repertoire could even inform genetic engineering to give a person super-immunity or to reverse immune disorders.”

Photo: joselugo/Flickr


LightSail Energy

Wind and solar power are great, except when it’s not sunny or windy. But wunderkind Danielle Fong, who graduated from college at 17, has developed a new way to store green energy that claims new benchmarks for efficiency. Her system uses compressed air and a fine mist of water to pump electricity back into the grid during times of peak demand. LightSail backers Peter Thiel, Vinod Khosla and Bill Gates have poured more than $37 million so far into the Berkeley-based company.

Photo: Sam Howzit/Flickr


Huawei

Unlike most companies on this list, Huawei is anything but a scrappy startup. The one-time importer of Hong Kong telephone equipment has grown into a telecom giant and one of the world’s leading smartphone makers. Though not widely known in the U.S. (yet), Huawei has succeeded not because of its phones’ features but the lack of them.

Huawei’s low-priced Android handsets are a key reason smartphones have become less of a luxury and more of a commodity in China and other parts of the world. According to one recent estimate, about one-seventh of the world’s population uses smartphones. Imagine what happens when the other six billion do.

Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired


M-PESA/Safaricom

In much of the developing world, credit and debit cards have never caught on, since the telecom networks needed to support their use doesn’t exist. In those same places, however, mobile phone use has exploded. In a phenomenon known as “leapfrogging,” the wires needed to power traditional card-based transactions might never get installed, since everyone will just use their phones instead.

In Kenya, mobile operator Safaricom has developed M-PESA, a way to transfer money and make microloans using text messages — no bank account required. Unlike in, say, the U.S., mobile payments have taken off in Kenya thanks to M-PESA, with millions of users. The company is working on rolling out the service to other countries where a lack of financial and technological infrastructure could cease to be a barrier to joining the 21st-century economy.

Photo: Sipa via AP Images


Nest

Saving energy is good. Saving energy without having to think about it is better. The buildings we inhabit are among the greatest sources of greenhouse gases. Nest’s smart thermostats seek to shrink this carbon footprint by learning our habits to automate indoor climate control.
Photo: Nest


Organovo

The design software juggernaut Autodesk recently partnered with Organovo to make human organs designed by computer and printed by machines a future reality. Already, Organovo’s 3-D bioprinters are being used by medical researchers to print tissues for experimentation. Organovo co-founder Andras Forgacs went on to start Modern Meadow, a company developing printable meat and leather.

Photo: Dave Bullock / Wired


Plexxikon

Few startups have had as much success in the war on cancer as Plexxikon. The company has shown dramatic results with a compound that targets a mutation found in many advanced-stage melanoma tumors (above, seen under a microscope). The next time you try to talk yourself down from work stress by saying “It’s not like we’re curing cancer,” remember: These guys actually are.

Photo: Pulmonary Pathology/Flickr


Oxitec

In much of the world, mosquitoes remain one of the most virulent vectors for infectious diseases. Oxitec’s genetically altered bugs fight Dengue fever by passing down a lethal gene to their offspring that kills them before they can reach adulthood. Curbing an entire species has raised concerns about unintended ecological consequences. But the use of genetic engineering as a public health tool is only likely to grow if Oxitec’s modified mosquitoes help eradicate this deadly disease.

Photo: Oxitec


SpaceX

Forget about the moonshot. How about a Mars shot? Of all the members of the PayPal mafia, which includes Levchin and Thiel, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has done the most to chase innovation on a truly grand scale. Musk not only wants to put humans on Mars; he wants 80,000 of us to live in a Martian colony. And SpaceX is his launching pad.

In the meantime, the company is busy making privatized space travel a reality. Most recently, SpaceX showcased a rocket that takes off and lands vertically—just like the ships in every sci-fi movie ever. Another SpaceX craft just docked with the International Space Station.

Photo: Space X

Lockheed Martin Moves Beyond Weapons to Clean Water With Graphene


By: Ben Johnson
Via: Marketplace

Lockheed Martin

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin has discovered a way to make desalination 100 times more efficient. And that could have a big impact on bringing clean drinking water to the developing world.

The process is called reverse osmosis, and the material used is graphene — a lot like the stuff you smudge across paper with your pencil.

“This stuff is so thin and so strong, it’s a remarkable compound, it is one atom thick,” says Lockheed Martin senior engineer John Stetson. “If you have a piece of paper that represents the thickness of graphene, the closest similar membrane is about the height of a room.”

The new material essentially acts as a sieve, allowing water to pass though while salts remain behind. Graphene could make for smaller, cheaper plants that turn salt water into drinking water, but it could also have uses in war zones as a portable water desalinator.

“Lockheed really is concerned with the broadest aspects of global security [and] maintaining safe environments and that includes water,” says Stetson.

To hear about more graphene applications, click on the audio player above.

App Shows What The Internet Looks Like

March 17, 2013

By: Nathan Yau
Via: Flowing Data


In a collaboration between PEER 1 Hosting, Steamclock Software, and Jeff Johnston, the Map of the Internet app provides a picture of what the physical Internet looks like.

“Users can view Internet service providers (ISPs), Internet exchange points, universities and other organizations through two view options — Globe and Network. The app also allows users to generate a trace route between where they are located to a destination node, search for where popular companies and domains are, as well as identify their current location on the map.”
I can’t say how accurate it is or if the described mechanisms are accurate, but it sure is fun to play with. The view above and a globe are placed a three-dimensional space, and you can zoom and rotate as you please. There’s also a time slider, so you can see changes to the Internet over the years.

Get it for free on iTunes.

A CNNMoney segment of the app in action: