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The Fight for Fiber


Remember dial-up? The screaming whine of the modem, the monumentally slow page-load times, emails with photos that take three hours to download. For most, dial-up Internet has gone the way of TV static and the cassette tape as things we’ll have to explain to our wide-eyed grandchildren.

Now imagine the next generation in web technology: ultra high-speed Internet. Two-hour, high-definition movies that download in less than five minutes, page load times in the fraction of a second range and real-time 3D streaming video with data speeds as high as 1 gigabit per second.

It might sound like the distant future, but it’s so close that you can almost feel the winds of change.

High-speed Internet is on its way for the few lucky communities that will win an ultra-high speed network built and operated by Google. Competition for the program, dubbed Google Fiber, has been intense, with cities—including a handful of Colorado communities—pulling outrageous stunts, creating fiber-themed superheroes and even renaming their residents for a chance at catching Google’s eye. But this isn’t just about downloading movies or video chatting across the globe; Google is building the network to push the federal government to expand high-speed Internet to everyone across America: to bridge the digital divide that is only getting bigger.

“Our goal,” a Google spokesperson told YS, asking to be unnamed, “is to experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone.”

Many of us take our existing high-speed connections for granted, but for nearly 100 million Americans living in rural and low-income areas, dial-up is still a painful reality. For some, the issue is one of expense; for others, the issue is access, with many of the big Internet service companies refusing to take on the cost of adding infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas.

Enter the Federal Communications Commission. As a stipulation of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the FCC was congressionally mandated to prepare a “national broadband plan,” to look at the current deployment of high-speed Internet and make recommendations on how to improve current infrastructure to meet future needs.

Broadly, the plan, released in March, recommends that at least 100 million additional U.S. homes have affordable access to broadband with speeds of at least 100 megabits per second by the year 2020, which would cover about 90 percent of homes. In addition, the plan recommends that every community have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions including schools and hospitals.

All of this would require a significant investment in infrastructure across the country. The FCC recommends using an existing program that helps subsidize telephone service in rural areas, but any such allocation of funds is sure to draw a political fight.

The need, however, is real; the disadvantages of not being connected in our increasingly connected world are nearly palpable. And that’s where Google comes in: Google Fiber, they hope, will push the government to move in that direction.

“We’ve urged the FCC to look at new, and creative ways to get there in its National Broadband Plan,” Google’s website states, “and now we’re announcing an experiment of our own.”

But first, let’s have a little math lesson and brush up on our vocabulary.

What exactly does “1 gigabit per second” speed mean? A bit is the basic unit of communication in computing, in essence, a 1 or a 0, a yes or a no. It takes about 8 bits to communicate one character of instruction, and those bits constitute a byte. The prefix giga- means billion, so a gigabit is 1 billion bits.

In other words, a whole heckuva lot of 1s and 0s.

To put that into perspective, according to the market research company comScore, the average high-speed user now gets data speeds of 3 or 4 megabits per second; that’s 3 or 4 million bits per second compared to the 1 billion per second Google Fiber and other services like it would provide. Imagine your Internet service is like a water tap: you’ve only been getting a trickle, but ultra-high speed would be like opening the spigot to full blast.

This isn’t new technology. Google hasn’t had to invent anything to provide breakneck Internet speeds, they’re merely proposing to take the steps to install it. Fiber-optic Internet is widely available in many other developed countries, but U.S. Internet service providers have been slow to adopt the technology, partly because of costs and partly because of an assumption that average users don’t need that kind of speed.
Google begs to differ.

And, having never been content to sit on the sidelines when it comes to innovation, Google has, to that end, announced its plan to build and test ultra-high speed broadband networks in a few trial locations across the country.

“Through these limited trials, we want to see what developers and consumers can do with ultra high-speeds,” a Google spokesperson said, “like creating new bandwidth-intensive ‘killer apps’ and services, or other uses we can’t yet imagine.”

They also foresee an important stream of data being generated from the installation and operation of the system itself, informing and supporting future deployments and encouraging more competition in the world of service providers.

The company put out a call for nominations to identify interested communities. In response, communities have shown quite a bit of interest. In fact, Google-mania has hit America’s cities and towns.

Topeka, Kan., for example temporarily (and unofficially) changed its name to Google. Duluth, Minn., responded by mockingly claiming they would name every child born in the city “Google” or “Googlette.” Highlands Ranch tried (and failed) to create an enormous human sign spelling out “We love Google.”

But Google claims that, while they love the grassroots efforts involved, these stunts will have little impact on the selection process.

“We’ll use our RFI (request 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 spokesperson said.

Which is not to say North Metro cities aren’t pulling out all the stops to impress the folks at Google, because they absolutely are. Fort Collins and Erie seem to hope their applications’ strengths will stand on their own, with neither launching a big public relations campaign, while Boulder and Longmont have gone all out in promoting their candidacy to Google and to the public.

But it’s not all hype; they’re also relying on more concrete reasons the benevolent overlords at Google should consider them in the running.

Longmont, for example, is hosting a YouTube video contest for students of the St. Vrain Valley School District, and it’s also hoping its existing infrastructure will catch Google’s eye.

“There’s a lot of hype out there,” said Tom Roiniotis, director of Longmont Power & Communications, “but once you get through the hype, we’ve got a lot of attributes.”

The city already owns the local electric utility and an 18-mile fiber-optic ring, both of which Google would be able to tap into to more quickly roll out the new service, not to mention the city-wide WiFi already in place. In addition, Colorado Senate President Brendon Shaffer has endorsed Longmont in their bid with a letter to Google.

Boulder is relying heavily on its reputation—as the happiest, fittest and smartest city in the country (as declared by USA Today, Men’s Health and Forbes, respectively). They’re also counting on their tech-savvy population to get out the vote, hosting a Twitter campaign, a Facebook page, even a “Boulder Fiber Weekend” to promote the project and score as many online nominations for the city as possible. But they too have some concrete advantages, including a high percentage of high-tech businesses, the highest concentration of software engineers in the nation and the nation’s first SmartGrid.

Just looking at local options, it becomes very clear that the Google search committee has mighty tough job to do—and at the end of this rainbow, there is more than just a pot of high-speed gold. There’s all the marketing and publicity that one community can imagine and the potential to be the real Google, U.S.A.—a city where dial-up is just a bad dream.


Lacy is an award-winning food writer and blogger. She lives in Westminster with her family. Google