Cities Sell Themselves – and Their Dignity – for a Shot at Google Fiber

Nothing says “ultra-fast broadband” better than the image of four poodles dressed as the “Wizard of Oz” gang. Or a video of a man dunking himself in a tank full of sharks. Or the sight of thousands of people gathering at night and using glow-sticks to spell out the logo of a certain world-famous search engine company.

When Google announced in February that it was seeking one or two cities for building out an experimental high-speed fiber-optic network — one that would be 100 times faster that what is available today — it sparked lightspeed-fast reactions from communities vying to see which could make the wackiest pitch for the company’s attention. So, while other cities, towns, states, companies and institutions had spent valuable time filling out bone-dry forms for federal stimulus funds to take part in the governent’s national broadband initiative, the mayor of Topeka, Kan., issued a proclamation changing the name of his city to “Google, Kansas,” and the aforementioned canines were decked out in Dorothy, Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion drag for an accompanying video.

The mayor of Sarasota, Fla., might have considered chasing down reams of supporting documentation to apply for federal broadband grants late last year. Instead, he chose to reenact the part of Richard Dreyfuss’ character in “Jaws” by putting on a wetsuit and getting into a shark tank. Of course, this came in response to a direct challenge from the mayor of Duluth, Minn., who had splashed into the frigid waters of Lake Superior, risking hypothermia — not to mention major shrinkage — to show his desire to attract Google Fiber. (The mayoral feud reached its zenith — nadir? — as only publicity stunts like these can with an appearance by both men on CNN.)

Topeka, Duluth and Sarasota are just three of some 1,100 cities and towns that have applied for Google Fiber, which may require a billion dollars to build. However, in promising speeds of up to 1 gigabit of data per second — “The Hurt Locker” could be downloaded in just over a minute — the company has also helped put a white-hot spotlight on the current state of broadband in the U.S., and what many people think of speeds that have America playing catch-up with other countries, such as South Korea.

“The responses have exceeded our expectations, and we were pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm we saw around the country,” Minnie Ingersoll, product manager for Google’s alternative access team, told TechNewsWorld. “People are hungry for better and faster Internet, and we’re happy to have so many options to consider.”

Dueling Broadband Initiatives?

The mayors of Sarasota and Duluth can engage in a friendly duel — but what does the FCC, currently in the midst of implementing its own broadband enhancement strategy, think about Google’s broadband initiative?

“Big broadband creates big opportunites. This signficant trial will provide an American testbed for the next generation of innovative, high-speed Internet apps, devices and services,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said shortly after Google’s February announcement. “The FCC’s National Broadband Plan will build upon such private-sector initiatives and will include recommendations for facilitating and accelerating greater investment in broadband, creating jobs and increasing America’s global competitiveness.

Genachowski showed the same level of support for Cisco’s plans to push the broadband speed limit envelope, FCC spokesperson Mark Wigfield told TechNewsWorld, adding that he was pleased with the reponse to Google’s plans — even if some of them skirted the boundaries of silliness.

“It’s certainly a sign that communities recognize the importance of broadband for economic development, for jobs, for education, for information — for services for small business,” Wigfield said. “I think it validates one of the goals we have in the national broadband plan: to provide for every community to have a very high-speed anchor in their community in order to promote innovation and increase connectivity.”

Private-sector initiatives have always been a part of the government’s strategy in that respect, and they will continue to be so under the new broadband initiative now being considered by Congress and the FCC, he added.

For its part, Google is keeping the government informed of its fiber plans and can provide valuable information for Washington, D.C., regarding deployment costs and technical issues.

“As we said in our comments to the FCC, we think that setting explicit, ambitious and achievable long-term goals for bringing ultra high-speed broadband to all Americans is critical,” Ingersoll said. “Those goals should be supported by our country’s best thinking about various ways to achieve them. We hope that our innovation and experimentation in these trial deployments can inform and accelerate ultra high-speed deployments elsewhere.”

Who Wins the Big Prize?

Does Topeka have the pole position in the race for Google Fiber? Google, known for its April Fool’s pranks, changed its name Thursday to “Topeka” in a salute to that city’s mayor adopting the company’s name.

Google will not be commenting on specific city applications until the company announces where it will build Google Fiber, Ingersoll said.

“We know this enthusiasm is much bigger than Google and our experimental network — people around the country are hungry for better and faster Internet,” she added.

So is Free Press, a nonpartisan advocacy group lobbying for greater, cheaper access to broadband for all Americans.

Free Press has been very critical of the lack of broadband competition among existing ISPs, but Chris Riley, the group’s policy counsel, admitted the Google competition among cities was crazy and telling at the same time.

“The need and demand for super high-performance broadband is immense in this country, and what we’ve seen is a competitive marketplace that’s failing to deliver that because it’s not a competitive market,” Riley told TechNewsWorld. “Instead, it’s charging a lot of money and providing poor customer service.”

Although he hasn’t been studying all the entrants in the Google Fiber sweepstakes, Riley said he’s seen a handful.

“Most of them seem pretty silly,” he remarked, “but if there was an award to give, you’d have to give it to Topeka. They were the first out of the gate and made the biggest deal out of it.”

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