It’s been a bonanza for public relations folks who can dream up zany stunts that feed the our news media’s thirst for “man bites dog” stories. Google reported Friday that they had received more than 1,100 community responses to the broadband fiber request for information (RFI) and more than 194,000 responses from individuals.
The company dashed a bit of cold water on those hopes when it reminded us that the goal of this experiment is to “reach a total of at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people with this experiment.”
But what city/cities should really win Google’s broadband challenge?
Should it be the city with the best ability to garner national news coverage, whether that’s Topeka, KS (renamed “Google, KS” for the month of March); Duluth, MN (tongue-in-cheek response to Topeka edict to name firstborn children “Google and Googlette Fiber”); or Greenville, SC (citizen-powered LED-logo)? Should it be a city from California? (There are at least 15 cities reportedly in the running.) Should it be a non-urban area? (Google says it wants to offer high-speed fiber to at least 50,000 people.)
If Google has preconceived ideas about what the winner might look like, they aren’t sharing. Me, I’m hoping that at least one community is on the “bottom” of this population threshold. I’d also like it to be outside of or on the edge of a major metropolitan area.
That means “no” to San Francisco (and other Silicon Valley entities, population density 17,323/sq mi) and Seattle (ditto, 7,136/sq mi). It means “no” to Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Detroit, Las Vegas, Orlando, Philadelphia, Portland, Raleigh, St. Louis. It means “no” to Greensboro (home to seven major colleges and universities) and Madison (center of MSA, population 561,505, and home to University of Wisconsin) and Fairfax County VA (suburban DC) and Sante Fe (the capitol of New Mexico).
I’m arguing for true experimentation: pick at least one locality that the telecos and cable companies are unlikely to care about. It might be an aging industrial center like Huntington, WV (population 49,185 in 2008, 3,234.1/sq mi) or Troy, NY (population 49,170 in 2000, 4,470/sq mi).
My native east coast side is rooting for Troy, even though it is part of a large MSA. Troy has a history of innovation. It’s the home of the Emma Willard School, founded in 1821 as the Troy Female Seminary and “the first school in the country to provide girls the same educational opportunities given to boys.” It’s the home to one of the nation’s first and largest waterwheels, producing electricity for Burden Iron Works and helping jumpstart the industrial revolution (Chapter 1, The Big Switch by Nicolas Carr). And the Google project has brought the community together.
However, for true experimentation, Google should pair a western outpost like Butte, MT (population 33,892 in 2000, 28.9/sq mi) with an agricultural one like Clinton, IA (population 27,772 in 2000, 780.9/sq mi). It is in rural areas that the need for experimentation is the greatest, because for-profit telecos and cable companies won’t be interested in the low density population areas, if 20th century electrification and telephony (REA, NTC) are our guide.
The Google project couldn’t be more timely. Verizon, which has introduced fiber optic cable in 16 states, is divesting itself of the service in the west and mid-west (subject to federal government approval). And Verizon “is the only major U.S. phone company to draw fiber all the way to homes.” While FiOS speeds pale next to speeds in Japan and South Korea, it is the fastest internet-to-the-home in the U.S. Fiber is 4-5 times faster than basic cable and almost 20 times faster than DSL.
According to the Washington Post, at the end of 2009 “Verizon had 2.86 million FiOS TV subscribers and 3.43 million FiOS Internet subscribers (most households take both).” What did it cost to get those customers? In 2007, Verizon estimated a cost of $23 billion over a six year period. Do the math: that’s more than $6,500 per customer, assuming 3.5 million total customers.
Changing out copper for fiber is expensive, but the Google fiber initiative suggests that millions of us understand why it needs to be done.
How do you think Google should make its pick? How much would you pay for high-speed internet service that rivaled Japan?