TechKnow – The US digital divide: Who gets high-speed Internet?

TechKnow visits the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, to explore how the city came to have the fastest Internet in the country.
The municipal power company, the Electric Power Board (EPB) set up “The Gig” fibre optic network in 2010 to enable a smart electricity grid, which also brought ultra high-speed Internet to Chattanooga’s citizens.

But to get this fibre-optic service, Chattanooga had to go up against Comcast, the country’s largest cable company, and the state cable association, which sued the EPB twice to try and stop them from going ahead with “The Gig”.

State senator Janice Bowling is fighting a legislative battle to bring high-speed Internet to the rest of the state. It’s a fight that has pitted her against the “legacy providers” through lobbyists representing, for instance, Comcast.

The city has reinvented itself into a tech hub, with start-ups such as 3D OPS which makes 3-D printed models of organs from medical scans like MRIs to allow surgeons to practice procedures, and has attracted businesses like Amazon and Volkswagen.

But beyond the city limits, and the 72,000 homes and businesses benefitting from “The Gig”, it’s a different story.

A few miles from 1-gig speed Internet in Chattanooga we meet the Van Hook family who only have access to painfully slow satellite Internet. No cable provider will provide service to their street. And while the EPB wants to provide them with service and don’t mind laying the cable, state law prevents them from doing so. The Van Hooks are lobbying against this. Others who are similarly outside EPB’s area of service have started grassroots fights.

We meet students who attend school in Chattanooga yet only have satellite Internet at home. Bad weather can affect their connections, and students must resort to doing homework at school or finding spaces in the city where they can work like the church.

Digital access is divided across the United States: 19 million people don’t have access to fixed broadband and in cities like Miami, New Orleans and Dallas, over one-third of people do not have access to high-speed Internet.

In this TechKnow episode, we also meet ‘Working Dogs for Conservation’ in Montana which trains dogs to sniff out endangered species and also locate invasive ones. We see one dog detect invasive mussels, which clog industrial pipes in Montana. The dogs have been deployed to 18 states and 13 countries. The next stop for one trained dog is Zambia, where it will work at a checkpoint to stop vehicles transporting ivory.

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