Where’s the beef? Gig winners fail to engorge selves on bandwidth

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An EPB service truck is parked while its operator makes a service call in downtown Chattanooga near the Solomon federal building.

By David Snyder

A classic Wendy’s commercial from the 80s featured the famous line “Where’s the beef”? That phrase comes to mind when looking at the winners of the Gig Tank competition recently held in Chattanooga.

The prize was designed to incentivise the production of applications that could use “the world’s fastest Internet.” Recent advertising by EPB, the city government-owned utility that built the network, have had us in awe of the new technology that was hinted at in its billboard proclaiming “Fiji Faster, EPB Fiber.”

With that kind of buildup — teleportation to Fiji made possible by the mind-numbing gigabit per second speed — we were sorely disappointed at the actual “inventions” that the Gig Tank devised.

I am not trying to deny credit to the bright young people who were enticed to live in Chattanooga for the summer and come up with business ideas in a scheme to promote the collective asset of superfast Internet.

WHILE TECHNICALLY SMART, these young folks can’t be blamed for not seeing the irony that Chattanooga’s dream is claiming to promote “entrepreneurship,” so called. George Orwell probably would have called Chattanooga’s scheme the “ministry of technology” or “the ministry of free enterprise.” The prospect of winning $100,000 is an incentive to produce something of value; and indeed I am impressed with some of the ideas, although not one of them uses a “gig” of speed.

The winner, Banyan Group, won first place with a “collaborative research system.” Open source projects such as www.sourceforge.net that have been doing collaborative research for decades. There is also the open source project, Seti that has been doing something useless with collaborative research for decades in a tireless search for extraterrestrials. You can join the effort even without a “gig” — see www.seti.org for more information.

I’m still wondering why Chattanooga runs a gig system if it has a handful of clients whose needs might press against its limits. Few potential users, if any, require gig power. Internet speed is controlled by its slowest chokepoint — whether routers or bandwidth or a user’s Mac or PC. A gig system in the city limits is useless if a client is dealing with an out-of-town party in, say, Berkeley or Hong Kong. It’s useless if the end user doesn’t have a gig speed system. Even within Chattanooga, a high-end EPB subscriber can’t take advantage of gig speeds within the city unless the other client is also a subscriber at the highest speed level within the city. If that’s the case, you might as well put your data on a laptop or thumb drive, hop behind your steering wheel and motor over to the other person’s office to trade data.

The winning student track was much more interesting. The students’ company, Babel Sushi, does near real-time translation of languages with an audible device. That seems very useful and I wish this team commercial success. Such success depends on their ability to conserve resources and make the system use as little bandwidth as possible, making it serviceable in third-world countries. The technology reminds me of old Star Trek episodes that allow Kirk to communicate with all manner of aliens, whom we hear in English. Who knows? If the Seti research project actually finds aliens, perhaps Babel Sushi will be there to instantly translate across the intergalactic language barrier.

SERIOUSLY, THE YOUNG competitors have good ideas. I think if there hadn’t been the requirement to promote “the gig” to win the money, they would all readily agree that their applications have much better chance of commercial success by using less, not more, bandwidth.

I’m disappointed but not surprised that a true gigabit-consuming and useful application was not developed in this promotional project. I had been looking forward to instantly showing up in Fiji via EPB fiber.