Friday, 09 April 2010 00:00
On February 11, the Google company announced that it would pay for a trial of ultra-high speed broadband networks for between 50,000 and 500,000 Americans in one or more communities. The one gigabyte-per-second fiber optic networks would deliver data at about 100 to 300 times faster than most Americans get in their homes today. Applications were due on March 26, touching off a six-week frenzied, friendly, race-to-the-Big-W-style competition among big and small towns across the country.
Sometimes it seems like millions of Americans and a large chunk of our political class have rejected the concepts of cooperation and mutual responsibility in public affairs. The Google project has been a breath of positive fresh air, full of fun and innovation. It has also stimulated Americans and local leaders in hundreds of towns to think about possibilities for the future.
Individuals and private groups were technically allowed to apply for their communities, but the company made it fairly clear that the active support of public officials was essential, and the Request for Information form asked about public-rights-of-way and other technical issues that required input from local governments. Applicants were asked about local demographics, topography, climate and estimates of community support for the project.
And a sizeable piece of America went wild. By now you’ve likely seen video of the mayor of Duluth jumping into a freezing Lake Superior, or read about Topeka officials renaming their city “Google, Kansas” for the month of March. Places that see themselves as popular and happening jumped in (Seattle, Portland, Charlotte, Austin). So did places that need a break and saw this as a potential economic savior (Flint, MI, possibly on its way to being reclaimed by nature). Many communities generated local resources to run full campaigns geared to Google, to the community and to the entire country, complete with mascots and theme songs.
This has been about more than the wacky antics and cutesy videos of residents singing anthems to Google (literally, like the hundreds who sang Ann Arbor’s “A2 Fiber” theme song). Some mayors and supervisors used the race to test new ways of reaching constituents, disseminating timely information and getting something done. Duluth used social media like Facebook and Twitter to get nearly one-third of its 85,000 citizens to join the campaign. That’s a participation rate that exceeds the typical voter turnouts we’ve been getting in Long Island elections.
Some smaller communities pooled their resources and collaborated in a unified proposal. Near San Francisco, cities formed the Diablo Valley Five in a joint application, and municipalities in the East Bay area formed another coalition. Some government-business-community coalitions were rapidly hammered out to demonstrate local enthusiasm and potential. The University of Virginia threw in with the city of Charlottesville and Albermarle County. Austin (the one in Minnesota, population 23,000), got their application in just under the wire after Hormel Foods, Austin Medical Center and the Austin Public Schools joined with the city to put together a serious, quality pitch.
By the deadline, a last-minute crush of applications brought the total number of applicant communities to over 1,100 (a complete list of participating places may be released by the time you read this).
In New York, where neither high-profile public officials nor much of the downstate mainstream media publicly acknowledged what was happening, Broome, Ontario and Tompkins counties were putting together applications, as were Buffalo, Corning, Kingston and Troy (all upstate). In the end, maybe more.
The future is digital, and it’s already coming to some countries so much faster than it’s coming to Americans that it’s an issue of national economic security. More than a third of Americans still either have no Internet access or rely on slow dial-up access. Long Islanders pay top dollar for broadband that’s slower by a magnitude than the speed of cheaper packages offered in some other countries, and we’re falling further back. Broadband will be a critical part of the infrastructure of a competitive United States.
President Obama recently released a national Broadband plan. It’s a welcome initiative, but it takes 10 years and still leaves out half the country. We need a new, big, fast way.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org