Why High Speed Internet Matters for Cities (and for Schools)

Chattanooga has the fastest internet connection in the nation. Can Pittsburgh be far behind?

Oh Chattanoogans, how I envy you. It takes 33 seconds to download a two-hour, high-definition movie in Chattanooga. In my house, it’s more like 33 minutes. And streaming? We still suffer through the dreaded “buffering” halfway through the movie.

Chattanooga, or Gig City, as Chattanoogans sometimes call it, has the fastest internet connection in the nation. Its download speed rivals that of Hong Kong. In Chattanooga, citywide ultra high-speed, fiber-optic connections transfer data at one gigabit per second, or 50 times faster than the average home in the US.

The city’s fiber-optic network—known as “the Gig”—has been in the planning stages for several years and was boosted along with help from the feds in the form of an $111 million federal stimulus grant. Signs suggest that the municipal-owned service has paid off, attracting the coveted “creative class” and new business, capital, and talent. And none too soon. According to the New York Times, “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.”

The same could be said for education, a little farther down the pipeline of talent-production. As the members of the Kids+Creativity Network well know, technology helps kids develop the critical skills they’ll need in the future. And Pittsburgh is at the forefront. From the classroom flight simulator at Shaler Area Elementary School to Allegheny County’s new digital playground for teachers, technology lets educators engage kids in new ways.

But technology in the classroom needs bandwidth, something in short supply in many schools. While schools might offer the same internet speeds that parents have at home, in-home connections don’t have to contend with 100 kids online at once.

That’s one reason President Obama recently announced $750 million in commitments from US companies to begin wiring more classrooms with high-speed internet.

According to an Associated Press article,

“Apple is pledging $100 million in iPads, computers and other tools. AT&T and Sprint are contributing free Internet service through their wireless networks. Verizon is pitching in up to $100 million in cash and in-kind contributions. And Microsoft is making its Windows software available at discounted prices and offering 12 million free copies of Microsoft Office software.”

The Federal Communications Commission is also setting aside $2 billion from service fees to connect 20 million students to high-speed internet over two years.

While it might not be Chattanooga, it’s a start. Education, after all, is at the core of a competitive, global marketplace.

Come to think of it, maybe Pittsburgh should throw down the gauntlet and challenge Chattanooga to a face-off. Pittsburgh already has the edge in attracting the creative class. Google’s been here since 2006 and is expanding. And as Eric Shiner, director of Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum told Next City, Pittsburgh “is an incredible place right now filled with artists and young tech people—just a really eclectic group of people trying to envision a better city.” (Indeed, some 70 percent of the people who are moving to the Pittsburgh region are between age 22 and 34.) The new mayor, Bill Peduto, is pushing to expand transparency through big data, with the goal of empowering people to dig in and help develop solutions to pressing problems. And now, to cement Pittsburgh’s status, the painfully hip Ace Hotel is moving to town. Can artisanal pickles be far behind?

Seriously, though, we here at RemakeLearning.org would place our bets on Pittsburgh, without or without the gigabytes. But that’s just us.


Photo/ C. Simmons

Published February 17, 2014