All aboard for Gigatown

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 10:30 10/02/2014
Gigatown
INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY: Will the Gigatown sign come to Nelson rather than a State Highway 1 town?

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Naomi Arnold

It's time we regained the freedom to burn House has a wild past but it’s P-free Absence felt strong Packed in like grains of sand Enjoy the sights - slowly Don't give our athletes the cold shoulder All aboard for Gigatown It isn't gossip - it's a set of lessons for life Too much noise, too many distractions Letting it all come out

If you're a social media user, you might have seen the Gigatown promotion popping up lately and wondered what on earth it's all about.

You wouldn't be the only one. It's a complicated, controversial setup - but, simply put, the Chorus promotion offers a one-gigabit-per-second internet connection to the town that wants it the most, as well as $200,000 to help the locals use it.

How does Chorus tell who wants it the most? It counts how many times the hashtag #gigatown appears on social media, appended with the appropriate city - #gigatownnsn is ours.

The promotion will be a mystery to many, and there's no denying that it's a spammy, sneaky bit of marketing. But Nelson has a determined core of people gunning to see our town win and reap the benefits - and they want more support.

Currently, we're in 11th place, being soundly whupped by Timaru, Masterton, Gisborne, Palmerston North, Queenstown, Dunedin, Porirua and Oamaru. Wanaka is in pole position, and we're just a sniff behind Whakatane - an extra-bitter pill, considering the devious northern town's thieving of our rightful sunshine crown a few years back.

All these towns are keen to follow the lead of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the poster child for what a gigabit fibre internet connection can do for a community.

The city, roughly the same size as Wellington, used to be an industrial hub, with foundries making up the mainstay of the economy. With that came pollution; locals joked about changing their shirts twice a day and turning on the headlights of their cars at noon. At one point, it was named America's dirtiest town.

But now it's turned that dubious honour into a reputation for digital innovation. Chorus invited the arrestingly named Sheldon Grizzle, who heads a non-profit economic development agency in Chattanooga, to explain how fibre turned the city around when the factories closed. At one point, he says, the population fell by 10 per cent as people fled to nearby cities for work. Now they're flocking back.

Chattanooga is the only place in the Western Hemisphere that has a connection this fast. It's so fast that a movie downloads in 20 seconds; so fast that there aren't actually that many applications for it yet.

The city has taken a "build it and they will come" approach, trusting that once the capability is there, the curious will flock to the city to create things that use it.

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And indeed they are. Today, there are start-up incubators in renovated factories, and one of America's largest web design schools has set up there.Volkswagen's head office and Amazon's distribution centre have shifted to Chattanooga to take advantage of the efficiencies of the gigabit fibre network.

Chattanooga is an internet testing ground, and other cities, including poor old run-down Detroit, are studying its lead.

In 2011, Chattanooga was included in a list of the world's seven most intelligent communities, one of just three in the United States to make the cut that year. It has positioned itself as the home of digital revolution in the US, and is reaping the benefits.

Mr Grizzle says the fibre network has brought 6700 new jobs, and there's been a noticeable influx of talent and new money. He says the amount of venture and angel capital in the city has grown by a factor of five - a clear sign of returning prosperity and confidence.

Those behind Gigatown Nelson want the same for us.

They want Nelson to be more than a nice retirement community, the Tauranga of the south. Imagine us having a network of innovative web-based professionals in creative fields - we've already got great coffee, awesome mountainbike trails and good beer, so we're nearly there already. Our existing businesses will be better able to service offshore clients as well.

We just need to live up to what Google named us in May last year - the country's top e-town, driven by a young, vibrant creative sector and the widespread adoption of online tools by small and medium-sized businesses.

Nelson could have the chance to move from a city and region based on primary industries to one including ideas and creativity as well - where people from around the world flock to set up businesses, share ideas and come up with new things. That's got to be good for us - it brings jobs, money, and excitement.

So go to facebook.com/gigatownnelson and check it out. Sign up at gigatown.co.nz - Nelson gets points for every signup.

Get Instagram on your smartphone and tweet your favourite pictures of Nelson, adding the hashtag #gigatownnsn, and check out the website for more options to get our city's rating higher.

Right now, we just need to get into the top five to make it to the next round of competition - and we have to beat those sunshine-stealing scoundrels of Whakatane, at least.

- Nelson

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