Bridging the Broadband Divide

Updated: May 6

CIO and innovator Brent Messer inspires, motivates U.S cities to deliver high-speed internet equitably and affordably to every home, business and school.

When U.S. President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) into law on Nov.15, he signaled officially that the U.S. is serious about ensuring that every U.S. household and business has access to reliable, affordable broadband service. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the fact that such high-speed internet access is no longer a luxury but rather an essential tool for routine access to healthcare, employment opportunities, education, and day-to-day living.

Brent Messer, Chief Information Officer, City of Chattanooga, Tenn.
Creating Access to Infrastructure

At least one city in America, Chattanooga, Tenn., has been leaning in on the concept of “using technology for the common good” – and by extension, “broadband for all” – since 2008. And no one is a more vocal or more passionate supporter of this technology trend than its former chief information officer, Brent Messer.

“Without equitable broadband infrastructure, the nation will continue to have a huge digital divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ he claims, referring to families or businesses who can’t afford or are unable to get high-speed internet, often in rural areas or some inner-city areas. “Municipalities can bridge that gap by providing high-speed internet, which not only benefits local citizens,

but also makes the city attractive for business development.”

Today, Chattanooga lays claim to some of the fastest and most equitable high-speed internet in the nation, he adds. Its network speeds range from 300 Megabits per second (Mbps) — offered free to disadvantaged households — up to 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps).

Advocating for Equity

Chattanooga’s city-wide fiber-optic network was developed and is operated today by EPB of Chattanooga, a city-owned power distribution and telecommunications company. In 2010, the utility became the first U.S. company to offer 1 Gbps high-speed internet to its users, landing Chattanooga the moniker “Gig City.” EPB has been offering 10 Gbps service since 2015.

Messer views passage of the IIJA as an opportunity for EPB to advocate for changes to Tennessee state laws that currently restrict how or even if municipal utilities and state electric co-ops — tax-exempt, non-profit electric companies owned and operated by members — can provide fiber optic services to their users. Those laws – as many as 17 other states have similar laws – were enacted largely in response to complaints from traditional internet service providers (ISPs) — think Comcast and AT&T — forced to compete with municipal-owned ISPs.

Fixating on Computers

Growing up in Yonkers, N.Y., a suburb of New York City, Messer was fascinated with cars, airplanes and computers, not necessarily in that order. His dad, an FBI agent and a technology early adapter, he recalls, “always had the latest camera, the latest computer, the latest whatever.” Which provided ample opportunities for the young Messer to experiment with computers, figure them out and show his dad how they actually worked, not unlike today’s tech-savvy kids showing their parents how the family iPad works.

Messer’s fixation on computers became official – in his mind at least – in 1984, when he saw the film “War Games.” The film features a high school computer nerd (Matthew Broderick) who inadvertently hacks into a U.S. military supercomputer system and nearly activates the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Photo art courtesy of United Artists Releasing

“I wanted to know how that worked, if it was actually possible,” he remembers. “The movie definitely pointed me in the direction of “I want to do THAT.” By THAT, of course, he meant wanting to know all about computers, not start World War III.

Following his family’s move to Gainesville, Fla., Messer found ways to put himself in close proximity to computers on a regular basis. As the captain of his elementary school’s safety patrol, he assigned himself the library shift, “specifically so I could play with the library computers and learn everything about how they worked.” After graduating high school, he also began experimenting with this new-fangled thing called the World Wide Web, building websites and writing code instead of partying with his contemporaries.

Gaining Perspective

Eventually, Messer turned to the U.S. Army as a way to expand his computer education and help pay for college. As a quartermaster, he worked on airfields refueling helicopters, but he also worked the supply lines, diving into the military’s computer-based supply system. It was there that he began to really see and understand how technology and digital information can affect the operation and efficiency of organizations.

The GI Bill got Messer to the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in visual communications in 2005. Along the way, he worked several IT jobs in the private sector, doing everything from installing networks from scratch to writing business software. His first REAL IT job, however, came in 2005 with Alachua County, Fla. (home to Gainesville), where he first became its web services supervisor, then later its applications manager.

Messer earned a Master of Science degree from Dakota State University - DSU Photo
Fortifying the Resume

In 2009, Messer – a self-described polymath – decided that he wanted to learn more about health informatics, a relatively new, interdisciplinary field that uses information technology to organize and analyze health records to improve healthcare outcomes.

He looked around and decided that Dakota State University, Madison, S.D. had the best program around. Through a series of online courses and exams proctored at the University of Florida, he completed DSU’s Master of Science program in Information Systems and Health Informatics in 2011.

In early 2014, after working for two years as the deputy director of IT for the City of Greenville, N.C., Messer landed in Chattanooga, fulfilling one of his several life goals: to become a CIO before the age of 40. He was just 37.

Messer helps ensure that technology is being used to benefit the lives of all Chattanooga citizens. City of Chattanooga photo.
Building on a Smart Web

Chattanooga’s high-speed fiber optic network, Messer explains, was originally developed as an automated, self-healing smart grid accessible to every household and business in the community. It was built out largely with grants from the Department of Energy.

“The network contains more 200,000 smart switches, sensors and other power management devices that identify trouble spots in the network and quickly route signals around those spots, reducing network downtime and the impact of power outages on EPB customers,” he said. The fiber optic cables are installed primarily along city-owned rights of way –

some underground, some on utility poles.

Harnessing Technology for Consumers

It turned out, however, that the signal distribution requirements of the new smart grid required only a small fraction of the communications capacity of the fiber optic cables.

“When the network was nearly complete,” said Messer, “EPB and the City said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this massive excess bandwidth. Why don’t we hook it up and begin selling high-speed internet as an ISP’?”

Initially, Comcast filed suit against EPB, claiming that it was improperly using ratepayer funds to subsidize the new internet venture. Within the first year and a half of launching the service, however, EPB was paying for all of its network operation and maintenance costs from its internet user fees. Today, according to EPB officials, the utility has about a 70 percent market share of Chattanooga’s internet subscriber base.

“Municipal ownership guarantees that access to the network is equitable and affordable for all."

Brent Messer, CIO

Committing to Equity

For municipalities thinking about becoming an ISP, Messer has some advice: run it like a business, not a municipal department. “You’ll need money, political support and a local community that believes in what you’re doing, of course,” he advises. “But to be truly successful, you’ll need people who can provide tech support, a business plan, startup capital and everything else. If all you do is put fiber in the ground, that fiber is going to remain dark.”

In most cases, he maintains, municipal ownership of broadband assets is a compelling choice for cities and their citizens alike.

“Municipal ownership guarantees that access to the network is equitable and affordable for all," said Messer.

Chattanooga's city-wide broadband infrastructure enabled a seamless transition to a "Work from Home" model for City employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chattanooga's commitment to equitable infrastructure paid off handsomely in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began shuttering its businesses, schools, and entertainment venues. Within 24 hours of the start of the pandemic, claims Messer, 93 percent of Chattanooga’s city employees were able to start working from home; within 48 hours, that figure was 100 percent.

Mining the Broadband Dividend

But there’s a lot more to broadband infrastructure than just high-speed internet, explains Messer. Chief among those benefits is economic development.

“Chattanooga is actively competing with other cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C. to bring businesses such as Walmart or Amazon to our city,” he emphasizes. “Having city-wide broadband infrastructure definitely gives us a leg up in that competition, especially for attracting startup companies in the tech industry.”

The City also uses the installed fiber as part of a smart, intelligent public safety system.

“Sensors and cameras connected to the network allow us to monitor air quality, traffic loads on our local highways and pedestrian safety,” explains Messer. “We even have cameras installed in our fleet of garbage trucks, which see about 98% of Chattanooga’s roads. We’ll be able to use those cameras to figure out where our potholes are, and then, once filled, to monitor how well the repairs hold up.”

Focusing on Efficiency

Workdays begin early in Messer’s home in Hixson, Tenn., a Chattanooga suburb about 20 minutes from downtown. Whether he’s Zooming from home or commuting to his office, his morning routine includes feeding the family dogs – a Chihuahua named Bella and a brown Yorkipoo named Hershey and getting his two middle-school-aged kids ready for school and out the door.

Messer motivates his team to fail fast, fail often in the relentless pursuit of innovation - City of Chattanooga Photo

And when it comes to his professional wardrobe, Messer confesses, “I try to be as efficient as I possibly can. I wear pretty much the same type of outfit every day. It’s one less decision I have to make.” Around City Hall, he’s known for wearing jeans, a pair of Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star shoes (with his initials on them), perhaps a shirt, tie and jacket or radically, a suit “upper” with a casual “lower.”

Failing Fast … and Well

For Messer and his team, there’s really no such thing as a “typical day.” Predictably, their days include answering questions from Chattanooga’s Mayor, City Council and other City employees, and brainstorming on how best to meet Chattanooga’s current and future IT infrastructure goals.

Messer describes himself as a “hands-on” leader. “We don’t really have as large a staff as we probably should so we all wear different hats, and we all do extra duty to get things done,” he says. In that spirit, his team lives by the motto semper novandi — always innovating.

In the end, however, Messer is passionate about and indeed guided by a single, overarching philosophy: that in any municipal work environment, failure IS an option.

“We have to fail, fail fast, and move on so that we can succeed,” he proposes. “That’s how we're going to innovate. And if we’re not willing to do that, and take those risks, then we’re never going to innovate; we’re never going to achieve anything.”

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