Cities fight for Google Fiber ... whatever that is

March 18, 2010 

Fresno and scores of other cities nationwide are clamoring to be named as testing grounds for Google's experimental ultra-fast Internet network -- yet they have only a vague notion of what that would mean.

Amid all the hype -- publicity stunts, YouTube videos, Facebook fan campaigns -- Google Inc. is playing hard to get. Especially when it comes to answers.

The Mountain View-based company says it wants to create a network in at least one city that apparently would put fiber-optic cables into every home and office. Google Fiber would be capable of moving data at 1 gigabit per second, many times faster than high-speed Internet service now offered by cable or telephone companies.

Beyond that, the Internet giant isn't revealing much. Among the questions: What's it looking for in a winning city? Would it mean tearing up streets to lay new cables? How much would residents pay for access? And what is the benefit if most Internet content must still travel through older, slower connections to reach the chosen city?

For that matter, what's in it for Google?

In an e-mail sent to The Bee, the company keeps it dreamy but vague: "In the same way that the transition from dial-up to broadband made possible the emergence of online video and countless other applications, ultra-high-speed bandwidth will lead to new innovations."

That's good enough for the would-be partners.

Even if they don't know exactly what Google Fiber is, the prospects are tantalizing enough for leaders in Fresno, Clovis, Merced and other cities to woo the company with gusto.

"The big picture is, this network will have significant benefits to doing business in this community," said Michael Lukens, a spokesman for Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin. "With that kind of speed, medical facilities and education will be able to use that very quickly, and it will allow businesses to do things more quickly."

Lukens said Swearengin has no plans to jump into a freezing lake -- a stunt one Minnesota mayor used in his city's video bid to Google -- to promote her city's Google Fiber effort. But she is one of the prominent local advocates who has posted on Facebook a photo of herself holding a sign proclaiming, "I want my Google Fiber."

Some Internet experts are close to snickering.

"Google must be having enormous amounts of fun with what people are doing to get this network that might not even get built," said David McClure, president and CEO of the Virginia-based U.S. Internet Industry Association, a trade group for online commerce and connectivity.

There is "a lot of misunderstanding about what [Google Fiber] is and where it's going to take us," McClure said. "It's not like if Fresno gets this, everyone there gets a 1 gigabit-per-second connection that will immediately bring them everything faster."

That's because the superfast speeds would likely be realized only within the confines of the network itself. For content that resides on servers outside that fiber network, slower parts of the route between the point of origin and the consumer could still be a bottleneck.

McClure said Google is betting that an ultra-high-speed network will spur the creation of "super-applications" -- and demonstrate the economic viability of such efforts for other Internet and communication companies to pick up the ball.

"If they can build a test bed, it will encourage the development and testing of higher-speed applications to prove their validity," McClure said. "Google wants this to provide a financial justification for the rest of the industry."

Google itself has lofty hopes. In its e-mail statement, Google said innovations may include "streaming high-definition video, remote data storage, distance learning, real-time multimedia collaboration and others that we cannot yet imagine."

Before any of that happens, though, a city has to be selected and a network has to be built.

Cities have until March 26 to submit their online applications to Google. But the company is being coy about what happens after that -- what it's looking for in a suitor, when it will announce its choice or choices, or when construction or operation of a fiber network would commence.

In an e-mail statement, Google said only that the company will consider factors "that will impact the efficiency and speed of our deployment, such as ... community support, local resources, weather conditions, approved construction methods and local regulatory issues."

Google's 26-page request for information from cities indicates that fanfare and publicity stunts are likely only bit players in the selection.

Cities are asked for details about such things as the number of homes and apartments, and the number of utility poles or underground conduits, who owns them and how much they charge to use them. Existing broadband availability and speeds are also among selection criteria.

But money isn't part of the equation. "We will not ask partners to share in the cost of the buildout," Google's statement said.

That's welcome news for Fresno and other cash-strapped cities in the competition.

"The definition of 'willing partner' for us doesn't include kicking money into it," said Lukens. But, he added, Swearengin plans to remove regulatory red tape to help Google get whatever permits it needs.

While Google says its fiber-to-home test network will be offered "at a competitive price" to between 50,000 and 500,000 people, competing against established Internet service providers such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T is not part of its business model.

"This is a small, limited experiment, and we do not intend to become a nationwide ISP," the company's statement said.

Google will benefit from its investment in the long run because, in simple terms, what's good for the Internet is good for Google, said Lee Rainie, director of the Internet and American Life Project for Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.

Google is already the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to Internet search and advertising. Greater Internet use likely means more people using Google's search, e-mail and other services -- and more eyes for its advertisers.

"As the use of the Internet becomes deeper and more intense over time, the overall enthusiasm and engagement will translate into better things for Google," Rainie said.

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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