Cities Try Silly Antics to Grab Google's 'Golden Ticket'

Google fiberCourtesy Mike Bergen
To attract Google's attention in the company's "Google Fiber" project, citizens of Greenville, S.C. created what they call the world?s first "human-powered Google chain."

Forget decorum. City officials across the country are getting downright goofy for Google.

When the Mountain View Internet giant announced in February that it would choose at least one community in the U.S. to test an ultra high-speed broadband network, no one knew what kind of antics would ensue.

But over the past few weeks, hoping to lure Google and its experimental fiber optic network, everyone from mayors to ice cream makers have pulled out all the stops in what has become a heated nationwide competition.

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The mayor of Duluth, Minn. jumped into the frigid waters of Lake Superior to draw attention to his city. In an attempt to one-up him, the mayor of Sarasota, Fla. swam in a tank of bonnethead sharks.

Hoping to boost their city's bid, more than two thousand people in Greenville, S.C. armed themselves with colored glow sticks to create a human-powered Google logo.

Officials in Topeka, Kansas went so far as to re-name the city "Google" (for one month at least). A dairy in Madison, Wisc., created a special "Google fiber" ice cream flavor to attract attention.

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In announcing its Google Fiber for Communities project, the company said the experimental network would deliver Internet speeds of 1 gigabit per second or higher, more than 100 times faster than what most people in the U.S. use today.

For many a community still reeling from the recession, that prospect is too appealing to pass over.

"We believe that whatever community Google selects, it's going to transform that local economy," said Duluth mayor Don Ness, who launched his city's bid with a leap into Lake Superior. "It will become a magnet for investors and innovative people who want to be on the cutting edge."

Bringing the Google network to Duluth would level the playing field, he said, and allow the city's talent to compete with the rest of the world.

In Sarasota, Fla., city officials said Google fiber could help diversify an economy that Vice Mayor Kelly Kirschner says relies too heavily on the "two-legged stool of housing and tourism."

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"We've seen in the past few years that the companies that are doing well are companies that are embracing the 21st century and engaged in the high-tech arena," Kirschner said.

To raise Sarasota's profile, not only did the mayor jump in a shark tank, it re-named its City Island "Google Island" and inspired singer-songwriter Lindsey Ray to write an original "Google Fiber" song.

Some of the cities' promotional antics have been somewhat silly, but their official proposals or RFI's (request for information) have not been without substance.

Ness said that he and Duluth officials have been busy with behind the scenes work to forge partnerships with governmental agencies, utilities and others to make sure that if Google chooses them, the project won't run into any red tape.

He also said that they've gone door to door, encouraging Duluth residents to sign a pledge saying that they'll use the service if it becomes available. The effort is part public education and part proof for Google that if given the chance, the city will jump on board.

Lehsa Griebel, information technology manager for Greenville, said her city is "the best kept city in the nation."

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In pitching themselves to Google, she said they highlighted the fact that they already have a relationship with the company (Greenville has helped with Google's mapping products for several years). And they emphasized that the area is a leader in automotive technology thanks to a top-rated mechanical engineering department at Clemson University.

"It will change the way we think about the Internet," she said. "I think it will be a paradigm shift."

With Google fiber, she said her city could bring a Web-based curriculum to the school community or help build smarter cars.

While Google has not disclosed many details about the project, it said it plans to announce the selected city (or cities) by the end of the year.

"We're doing this because we want to experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster," said Google spokesman Dan Martin. "We're excited to see the enthusiasm from communities nationwide, not to mention the amazing grassroots interest. It's clear that there's a real hunger across the country for better and faster broadband access."

Google's Experiment Could Be 'Golden Ticket' for a Community

Doug Williams, an analyst with Forrester Research, said Google's plan is an attempt to shake up the marketplace.

"Google is impatient," he said. "They want to create a broadband utopia in creating this superfast network that is going to far exceed any of the services delivered by current broadband service providers."

As the Federal Communications Commission begins to push a national broadband plan of its own, Google's proposal is an experiment to see if it's viable at an affordable price and if people will change their behavior with faster broadband in place, Williams said.

For the city's competing for Google's attention, he said, it's a "huge gift."

"Call it the lottery, call it the golden ticket," he said. "Someone's going to open up a Wonka bar and find a golden ticket inside."

But indirectly, the experiment could push the rest of the country forward too.

"Google is not in the business of losing money," he said."They are going to do this in the presumption that they can make money."

If that's possible, he said, the benefits could reverberate out to other parts of the country.