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Austin joins list of suitors for Google’s “super fast” internet

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 by Michael Kanin

Austin will add its name to the growing list of municipalities that will compete for the privilege to serve as a guinea pig for Google’s latest project. If selected by the Bay Area-based IT behemoth, Austin would play host to a widely publicized effort that would bring what Council Member Laura Morrison termed “super fast internet” to somewhere between 50,000 and 500,000 private residents. The city sees no regulatory obstacles to the plan.  

 

“It’s really a great opportunity…(and) we think it’s a terrific fit for the city of Austin,” said Morrison. “We are clearly a tech-savvy city. We’ve been listed in Forbes as one of the U.S.’s most-wired cities. We certainly have the creative industry and the entrepreneurs here to really help figure out what exactly a super fast Internet could bring to the community.”

 

Competition for the service, called Google Fiber, will be stiff. Municipalities that have thus far declared some level of interest in the program include Portland, Ore., Asheville, N.C., Topeka, Kan., Duluth, Minn., and Baltimore, Md. The winning city or cities would receive a Google-built fiber optic network. According to the company such an undertaking would bring “Internet speeds (at a rate that is) more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today.”

 

Google has issued a request for information (RFI) to help filter potential candidates. A spokesperson for the company told the Gigaom blog that the RFI will be used “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.”

 

The Google Fiber project was first announced on Feb. 10. Since then, public officials from regions across the U.S. have engaged in a game of friendly PR one-upmanship. These stunts range from a frigid Lake Superior bath for the Mayor of Duluth to a new name (Google, for the month of March) for Topeka. Morrison didn’t say if Austin’s leadership might have similar plans.

 

However, city officials were adamant that they could provide no economic incentives to help lure the project here. They encouraged locals to both nominate the city through a form Google has posted on its web site and respond to the potential of a Google Fiber Austin project through a website (www.biggigaustin.org ) that has been set up to record citizen input.

 

“This is not a standard company recruitment campaign,” said Chip Rosenthal, chair of the Austin Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission. “What Google wants is a community to step forward and make their project a success. That’s not something the Mayor can do and that’s not something the Chamber of Commerce can do.  That’s something that only we, the broadband citizens of Austin, can do.”

 

The city of Austin has, itself, tried to get into the delivery of Internet service. According to Rondella Hawkins, the manager of the Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs division of the Financial and Administrative Services Department, the city had a “vision (in the mid-nineties) to build and construct an open access fiber network.” The goals of that project, she told In Fact Daily, were to “help with right-of-way management…promote open access networks so that there wouldn’t be 10 different networks built…and also to promote competition in the city for cable TV services (and) telecom services.”

 

“Well, kind of toward the end of the process,” she adds, “there was some state legislation that got passed that prohibited municipalities from directly or indirectly providing telecommunications services.” When asked if the Austin project was targeted by the State Legislature, she nodded.

 

This time, Hawkins doesn’t expect any like interference. “We are fairly confident that we don’t have any concern,” she says.

 

As for Google’s potential competition, Time-Warner Cable of Texas spokesperson John Herrera says he is “very confident” in how his company’s products stack-up against the theoretical Google Fiber network. “We do pretty well going up against some of the larger competitors not only in Texas, but in the world,” he says.

 

He cited the roll out of the Clearwire 4G wireless broadband network as an example of Time-Warner’s next-generation efforts. He added that Google is one of a handful of investors in that project.

 

Google has indicated that it would be willing to open up some of its new network to competing Internet service providers.

 

Applications for participation in the Google Fiber project are due March 26. The Austin Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission will host a forum on the subject tonight at 7pm at City Hall.

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