Like nervous suitors vying for the marriage hand of a maiden, communities are putting together creative proposals to catch the attention of Google. It was just a month ago when the mega corporation announced it was looking to partner with a U.S. city to launch its newest project [read Google's fiber proposal, PDF]. But already, several hundred communities have set their sights on securing a partnership.
For the right city or cities, Google has offered to build—for free—a fiber-optic network that promises to deliver Internet speeds 100 times faster than those currently available to most homes and businesses in the U.S. The infrastructure could cost the company as much as $600 million based on industry estimates of $1,200 to $1,500 to install fiber to one home or business. But in addition to revolutionizing education, medicine, business and industry, it could bring reliable, low-cost Internet access to those who could never before afford it.
The details of the deal remain vague—perhaps adding to the mystique—and it's hard to tell what attributes will catch Google's eye. Nonetheless, hundreds of communities, including Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro, are so excited about what they've heard, they're using public relations campaigns and gimmicks to woo the company.
Don Ness, the mayor of wintry Duluth, Minn., jumped into frigid Lake Superior last week to declare his commitment to bring Google to his town of 85,000. He also jokingly pondered a campaign to name new babies born in Duluth Google and Googlette. Ness was hoping to top officials in Topeka, Kan., who renamed the town Google for the month of March. And next week, hundreds of people wearing the hues of Google's logo will gather on the field of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park to pay homage to the company. As a show of enthusiasm, they'll arrange themselves to spell out "We want Google" recreating the company's logo for an aerial photo.
"I think Google has a good brand. People know Google. It has a positive reputation," said Durham resident Lizzy Gilligan. "The idea that Google could come into our town and make this big investment in the infrastructure—I can see why people are excited about it."
Gilligan is a member of the Facebook fan page Bring Google Fiber to Durham, N.C. There are more than 300 other Facebook groups and fan pages just like Durham's, representing metropolitan centers, large cities, college towns and quaint communities. The largest group is in Grand Rapids, Mich., which has 21,349 fans.
"I think that a lot of this response has started to sound more like a pep rally," said Chapel Hill spokeswoman Catherine Lazorko. The town is working with officials in Carrboro and at UNC-Chapel Hill to apply for Google Fiber, the institutions announced last week. The work group includes tech experts like John Streck, UNC's executive director for communication technologies, who is similarly ecstatic about the opportunity.
"I'd be right in front of the parade," Streck said. "I'd want it in my house tomorrow."
So why are we so gaga for Google? For a country that both produces and consumes some of the most advanced technologies in the world, the U.S. lags behind many other developed countries when it comes to Internet access. While residents in Korea and Japan blaze along on the Internet at speeds of 100 megabits per second, most Internet services in U.S. communities offer home Internet speeds of 1.5 to 3 mbps, and up to 10 mbps for businesses.
"We're behind, yet we're the founders of the Internet," said Jane Smith Patterson, director of e-NC, a state organization dedicated to studying broadband access in North Carolina.
By installing fiber-optic cable to homes and businesses, Google could offer download speeds of 1 gigabit per second. The applications of such technology are vast. For Gilligan, it would mean a more efficient home-based business.
"I have an Etsy shop, and uploading photos can take forever," she said, referring to the online art-and-craft marketplace Etsy.com, where she sells handmade children's clothes. "Google Fiber would make uploads speedy, so I could spend more time sketching and sewing and less time waiting for pictures to load."
In daily life, higher speed and broader access could change a visit to the doctor's office or a child's collaboration on a group project for school. It could mean at-home continuing education for more working parents, who could attend virtual lectures without having to book a babysitter.
"The amount of information that we as a society toss around on the Internet seems pretty crazy right now," said Sam Poley, director of marketing and communications for the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau, who is part of a Durham team working on that county's bid for Google Fiber. "But it's minuscule when you think about what's possible."
Google, named just this week by FORTUNE magazine as the second-most admired company (behind Apple) in the world, already has a presence in North Carolina. In 2007, the company chose Lenoir, a city of 18,000 in Caldwell County, as the site for a $600 million data center. The county had bled hundreds of jobs in the closings of several furniture factories, but luring Google was not cheap. Local and state tax breaks and other incentives for the company top an estimated $200 million, an arrangement so controversial among the deal's critics that it prompted a lawsuit against the state and former N.C. Governor Mike Easley.
Patterson calls the Lenoir server farm a "major coup" for the Tar Heel State. It houses servers for Google products, including the Google search engine, Google Maps and Gmail, and is expected to create 200 jobs by 2012. In December, Google funded and helped establish a free Wi-Fi network for the town of Lenoir and outfitted schools with Wi-Fi-ready laptops.
Now, the booming tech corporation with the bold "Don't Be Evil" motto is offering to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in public infrastructure by installing fiber-optic cable to homes and businesses. The networks would be open for other Internet service providers to use, thereby creating competition and reducing costs paid by the end user: the consumer.
The company announced its project Feb. 10. It opened a "request for information," a 26-page application, to any municipality in the U.S. and encouraged residents to back up the applications with their own nominations. The company stated only that it would choose one or more locales and could serve anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 people.
The call for information asks for specific data, both public and proprietary, such as who owns utility poles in the community and how much it would cost per year to attach lines to them—even what inspection and application fees the company would incur if it wanted to access the public right-of-way. This information is due to Google March 26. A Google spokesman has said the company will announce its chosen community partners by the end of the year.
The day after Google announced its intentions, Durham city staff, local tech junkies and boosters such as the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce scrambled to assemble teams to work on an application for the county, which comprises roughly 265,000 residents. Marketing gurus in the Bull City now boast a Twitter feed, a Facebook fan page with more than 1,700 members and a Web site where residents can nominate Durham as the test site. In addition to its application, the city will send in that aerial photo of residents spelling "We want Google" and video testimonials from children and teens on how broader and faster Internet access could help them realize their education and career goals, Poley said.
Raleigh is trying to lay claim to Google Fiber, too. Earning the top spot on the Forbes magazine list of "Most Wired Cities" last week could help. The Capital City climbed from No. 15 in last year's rankings and was honored for its broadband offerings and usage and Wi-Fi access downtown and on buses. The magazine also recognized Raleigh for the tech knowledge created at Research Triangle Park giants such as Cisco and at nearby research universities.
East Raleigh organizer and blogger Mark Turner said the Bring Google Fiber to Raleigh! Facebook group he created the day that Google announced the fiber program now includes more than 600 members and has drawn the support of elected officials. He hopes upcoming Internet conferences in Raleigh will add muster to the effort.
"I see fiber and Internet connection as being almost as vital nowadays as sewer service and water service, as far as building communities," Turner said. "It would really position us for some long-term growth."
In the western part of the Triangle, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC have banded together and are holding a public forum March 15 at which they'll ask residents to nominate the Chapel Hill/ Carrboro team and provide feedback via an online survey. Chapel Hill resident Brian Russell, founder of the local Internet advocacy nonprofit Orange Networking, also started a Facebook fan page, called Bring Google Fiber to Chapel Hill & Carrboro, N.C., the day after Google's announcement. It now has more than 700 members, including mayors of both Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
"Google is an incredibly deep-pocketed partner that could make everything that I've been advocating for last five years in this town to happen, and in my lifetime, and hopefully before my kid gets to school," said Russell, whose 11-month old son, Izzy, has regularly updated Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Russell said high-speed Internet could keep UNC-Chapel Hill start-ups and entrepreneurial students in town, benefiting the local economy and curbing brain drain. Russell houses some of those innovators at Carrboro Creative Coworking, a small business that rents work space to micro-businesses and other independent ventures.
"That would be a major advantage for them," Russell said of higher speeds. "They upload and download very large files for their work. If they can do it quickly, they can have a better turnaround. They can do more work. They can make more money. It would really affect their bottom line quickly."
A Google representative was not available for a phone interview to answer queries on the company's ultimate goals or intentions with its project. But to Patterson, the director of e-NC, as well as other experts, the campaign already has been a win for the billion-dollar tech company and its brand.
"You have to look at what Google really wants to do and what their motive is," Patterson said. "I have to say, it's the greatest marketing ploy I've seen from a company ... If I were to learn about the areas of the country where I would want to put more emphasis, I could go out and spend a fortune as a marketing team, or I could do what they're doing. For a small sum, they're getting an enormous amount of marketing information."
It's unclear exactly how Google will use the data it gets from the towns not chosen as partners, though citizens could gain access to some of the same information. "There's nothing that Raleigh is going to be giving them that is not public record," said Jonathan Minter, the town's assistant information technology director.
Critics of Google, largely competitive Internet service providers and their political allies, say the company is creating hype it can't replicate on a national scale and is just cherry-picking easy-to-wire communities to put pressure on the telecommunications industry to expand access and increase speed, much like the company spurned innovation by entering the mobile phone market.
Time Warner Carolinas spokeswoman Melissa Buscher said the company welcomes the competition and has been buying wideband-capable equipment, more robust lines able to transfer more data, since 2008.
Last year, Time Warner launched 50 mbps service, built on the more robust wires, in New York. Locally, the 10 mbps Roadrunner Turbo is the fastest Time Warner offers for the home. Buscher said the company hasn't heard customer demand for the blazing speed Google is offering, especially given infrastructure and subscription costs. But she said they are listening.
"That's not something that is just starting now," Buscher said. "It's always been our mind-set."
Google makes no secret of its work to keep the Internet open and under the directions of its users, not private providers. The Mountain View, Calif., company also has cleared the way for private-public fiber partnerships. In 2007, it joined several North Carolina municipalities in lobbying to defeat the Local Government Fair Competition Act, state legislation that would have hampered community broadband, prevented access to stimulus funds and added more red tape that would give existing Internet providers an advantage. The bill returned to the N.C. General Assembly in 2009, this time as the Level Playing Field Act, and Google again helped prevent its passage, perhaps clearing the way for the public-private partnership the company is offering now. Those who beat back the legislation fought not only to enjoy faster download times themselves and for the local economic benefits, but also for equality, they say.
For years, Russell, the broadband advocate in Orange County, has been urging town officials to take seriously the issue of Internet access. The divide between those who have Internet access and those who don't, he says, is a matter of social justice.
According to e-NC, the state organization that has been studying broadband Internet access in the state since 2001, more than 81 percent of homes in the Triangle's three major counties—Durham, Orange and Wake—are in places where high-speed Internet access is available (defined by the FCC as just 200 kilobits per second, which is less than what most DSL connections deliver). However, there's little data to show how many subscribers Internet service providers actually have in these counties. Those numbers could very well be different when factoring in income. E-NC cannot obtain subscriber information from companies because it's proprietary information, Patterson said.
Among the Triangle's three most prominent cities, Chapel Hill shows the highest proportion of residents living below the poverty level—8,573 people, more than 21 percent, according to data from the 2000 U.S. census. In Durham, 15 percent of residents, or 26,605 people in the city, were living in poverty in the last U.S. census, as well as 11.5 percent of residents in Raleigh, equal to 29,807 people. According to a 2009 survey by the Federal Communications Commission, residents with the lowest incomes could have the most to gain from broadband access, especially as they cope with a rebounding economy and a shaky job market.
The data indicates that about 40 percent of households with incomes of $20,000 or less have broadband (768 kbps), compared with 91 percent among those in households with annual incomes of $75,000 or more. The survey also shows that low-income broadband users are more likely than well-off uses to look or apply for a job online. Nearly half of the low-income residents surveyed said they didn't have broadband access at home because of the cost.
Although Google's offer sounds most promising to eager residents and businesses, there are other options to develop such networks—imperative, since not everyone can pull at Google's purse strings. Providers such as Verizon are investing in fiber networks to deliver Internet and television services nationally, though the speeds of 50 mbps are shadowed by Google's proposal to go 20 times faster.
And among the hundreds of projects being funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, $7.2 billion has been funneled to various organizations to expand broadband access to underserved areas. Congress has ordered the FCC to deliver a National Broadband Plan, due next week, that addresses broadband access, affordability and how it could be used to improve job opportunities, lower health care costs and even manage energy use.
Local companies also are being brought into federal broadband projects. In January, RTP-based nonprofit organization MCNC, which operates the North Carolina Research and Education Network, received a $28 million grant that will allow for 480 miles of fiber cable (capable of transmitting 10 gbps) to be laid throughout 37 western and southeastern North Carolina counties. The installation will take three years, but a total investment of $40 million will bring broadband Internet access to schools, libraries, medical facilities and other key institutions, according to a spokeswoman.
Perhaps the best example of what Google is proposing, but on a very small scale, is Greenlight, a high-speed Internet network built in 2007 and 2008 in Wilson, N.C., a town of 50,000 just east of Raleigh. The town borrowed $28 million to install its fiber line, creating a town-administered fiber network that offers Internet, phone and TV service. The service provides speeds of up to 100 mbps for residents (about 10 times faster than most North Carolina residents can access) and 1gbps for businesses—the same speed as Google. Basic service combines Internet, phone with unlimited long distance and TV for $99.95 a month. Top speed will run you $299.95 monthly.
"When we first started this, we kind of felt like the lone voice in the wilderness," said town spokesman Brian Bowman. "I think people understand the need for faster bandwidth now."
Wilson's success gives Google a window into how fiber can work in the state. Access has been available to residents since December 2008. Already, Greenlight has 4,667 subscribers in both homes and businesses, and the town recently used the network to train firefighters via a Web conference. Wilson's schools recently signed up for Greenlight, and BB&T Bank, which has its operation center in Wilson, reportedly has increased efficiency for its 2,000 employees.
When Wilson's leaders originally pondered the project, they had reached out to private vendors to try to form a public-private arrangement. But when Time Warner balked and Embarq couldn't agree on a price, Wilson decided go it alone, Bowman said.
"If you are relying entirely on the private sector to do it, you just have to wait," he said. Bowman said revenue totals are on track to pay back the loan in 12 to 14 years.
Still, partnering with the private sector promises to lend municipalities what they don't have—experience, innovation and deeper pockets, which explains the craze stemming from Google's offer to pick up the tab. But who will the lucky communities be? Aside from the lists of questions on Google's request for information, it's unclear, really, what will ultimately draw the company to its chosen locales.
"Above all, we're interested in deploying our network efficiently and quickly, and are hoping to identify interested community partners that will work with us to achieve this goal. To that end, we'll use our [requests for information] to identify interested communities and to assess local factors that will impact the efficiency and speed of our deployment, such as the level of community support, local resources, weather conditions, approved construction methods and local regulatory issues," a Google spokesperson said in an e-mail response to questions from the Indy. "We will also take into account broadband availability and speeds that are already offered to users within a community."
What do we really know about our rich, powerful magnate? And how will locals handle the letdown if Google chooses someone else?
It will be interesting to see how communities leverage the excitement the prospect has created, said Kevin Davis, an assistant director of information technology at Duke University who is working on Durham's bid for the Google project.
"If you look at how many communities were talking about gigabit fiber and how they could use it six weeks ago and what they're saying about gigabit fiber now, the conversations are very different," Davis said. "I think what Google is doing is changing the conversation nationally on what our broadband expectations are and what they should be."
Even if there's no winner in the Triangle or the state, it appears there could be benefits to the fiber-optic fervor that Google has generated with its campaign. The end of any courtship leads to self-reflection. And when they look back, perhaps those cities with unrequited proposals will realize their fleeting dalliances with the world's tech giant taught them more about themselves and their own needs: the potential costs and work of installing fiber, just how badly residents, businesses and those lacking basic access desire it and how ready they are to take their own relationships with broadband to the next level.
Corrections (March 11, 2010): The population of Lenoir, N.C., is 18,000. See comment below. Also, Google's 1 gbps proposed Internet speed is 20 times faster than the fastest speed being offered by Verizon.