It’s been a bonanza for public relations folks who can dream up zany stunts that feed the our news media’s thirst for “man bites dog” stories. Google reported Friday that they had received more than 1,100 community responses to the broadband fiber request for information (RFI) and more than 194,000 responses from individuals.

The company dashed a bit of cold water on those hopes when it reminded us that the goal of this experiment is to “reach a total of at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people with this experiment.”

But what city/cities should really win Google’s broadband challenge?

Google Greenville

Greenville, SC Creates Google Logo With More Than 2,000 People Holding LED Glow Sticks; Photo by Michael Bergen, AidJoy.org

Should it be the city with the best ability to garner national news coverage, whether that’s Topeka, KS (renamed “Google, KS” for the month of March); Duluth, MN (tongue-in-cheek response to Topeka edict to name firstborn children “Google and Googlette Fiber”); or Greenville, SC (citizen-powered LED-logo)? Should it be a city from California (there are at least 15 cities reportedly in the running)? Should it be a non-urban area? (Google says it wants to offer high-speed fiber to at least 50,000 people.)

Google Fiber Responses

This map (effective 1.30 pm PT) shows where responses were concentrated. Each small dot represents a government response; each large dot represents locations where more than 1,000 residents submitted a nomination.

If Google has preconceived ideas about what the winner might look like, they aren’t sharing. Me, I’m hoping that at least one community is on the “bottom” of this population threshold. I’d also like it to be outside of or on the edge of a major metropolitan area.

That means “no” to San Francisco (and other Silicon Valley entities, population density 17,323/sq mi) and Seattle (ditto, 7,136/sq mi). It means “no” to Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Detroit, Las Vegas, Orlando, Philadelphia, Portland, Raleigh, St. Louis. It means “no” to Greensboro (home to seven major colleges and universities) and Madison (center of MSA, population 561,505, and home to University of Wisconsin) and Fairfax County VA (suburban DC) and Sante Fe (the capitol of New Mexico).

I’m arguing for true experimentation: pick at least one locality that the telecos and cable companies are unlikely to care about. It might be an aging industrial center like Huntington, WV (population 49,185 in 2008, 3,234.1/sq mi) or Troy, NY (population 49,170 in 2000, 4,470/sq mi).

My native east coast side is rooting for Troy, even though it is part of a large MSA. Troy has a history of innovation. It’s the home of the Emma Willard School, founded in 1821 as the Troy Female Seminary and “the first school in the country to provide girls the same educational opportunities given to boys.” It’s the home to one of the nation’s first and largest waterwheels, producing electricity for Burden Iron Works and helping jumpstart the industrial revolution (Chapter 1, The Big Switch by Nicolas Carr). And the Google project has brought the community together.

However, for true experimentation, Google should pair a western outpost like Butte, MT (population 33,892 in 2000, 28.9/sq mi) with an agricultural one like Clinton, IA (population 27,772 in 2000, 780.9/sq mi). It is in rural areas that the need for experimentation is the greatest, because for-profit telecos and cable companies won’t be interested in the low density population areas, if 20th century electrification and telephony (REA, NTC) are our guide.

The Google project couldn’t be more timely. Verizon, which has introduced fiber optic cable in 16 states, is divesting itself of the service in the west and mid-west (subject to federal government approval). And Verizon “is the only major U.S. phone company to draw fiber all the way to homes.” While FiOS speeds pale next to speeds in Japan and South Korea, it is the fastest internet-to-the-home in the U.S. Fiber is 4-5 times faster than basic cable and almost 20 times faster than DSL.

According to the Washington Post, at the end of 2009 “Verizon had 2.86 million FiOS TV subscribers and 3.43 million FiOS Internet subscribers (most households take both).” What did it cost to get those customers? In 2007, Verizon estimated a cost of $23 billion over a six year period. Do the math: that’s more than $6,500 per customer, assuming 3.5 million total customers.

Changing out copper for fiber is expensive, but the Google fiber initiative suggests that millions of us understand why it needs to be done.

How do you think Google should make its pick? How much would you pay for high-speed internet service that rivaled Japan?

Related: US Cities In 43 States Vying For Google Fiber

:: This post first appeared at Wiredpen
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KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
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Copyright 2010 The Moderate Voice
  • ksb43

    My prediction: Ann Arbor will win it.

    • DLS

      Good thinking. Certainly it would be suitable.

  • Kansas City 🙂

  • Thanks for the nominees. 🙂

    I find it interesting that no one is taking aim at my argument regarding more remote, less urban areas be at the top of Google’s list.

  • ksb43

    I think they want to keep it in a smaller size, fairly contained city where Google has a physical presence: hence Ann Arbor. The founders are from there, I believe.

    • Ann Arbor is, like Troy, on the “dense” side (4221/sq mile). I lean towards Troy because of its history with innovation — both manufacturing/economic and education for women.

  • Kathy – Here in Topeka, we tend to agree with your thoughts on who Google should pick, which is why I think we’re a strong candidate. Our population is on the lower end of Google’s coverage target (all of Shawnee County is less than 175,000) and we offer lots of variety, urban, suburban and rural areas, as well as, a variety of climates to experiment with. The knowledge gathered here could easily be extended to areas all over the country.

    @AlissaSheley

    • Thanks, Alissa. I think Topeka is more likely than my extreme scenario, but I really hope Google picks an area with very low density for experimentation. Topeka is 2180/sq mile.

  • merkin

    AT&T (as Bell South) laid fiber to my curb 10 years ago but will only run cable TV or twisted pairs copper for DSL to my house, not the fiber. Just a few days ago Comcast buried fiber piggy-backed on the new CATV cable to my curb. I don’t know if they would run it to my house or not.

    The future belongs to wireless of course. We already have Wimat service all over town from Clear and are quite happy with it.

    • Thanks – whereas I agree with you that wifi is important, it is orders of magnitude slower than fiber. I’d love to read that there are expectations that wifi will get to be as fast as fiber, but I haven’t seen any.

  • pacatrue

    My community has their request in:

    http://hi-google.org/

    There are a lot of very good reasons Hawaii would be a nice choice — nice blend of rural and urban, self-contained in a virtually unique way for the U.S., linguistic diversity, etc.

    I think the mythology of Hawaii will keep it from happening. Lots of Americans don’t even consider Hawaii part of the U.S. (such as Clinton’s campaign manager), so it won’t sound as good in a PR statement to put fiber in Hawaii as it would to put it in Nebraska. It’s just a mythology, but PR is based upon myths.

    • Well, Hawaii has 1.3 million folks, which is well beyond the scale of the effort. I don’t know how well knowledge learned on an island could be used on the mainland — I don’t know enough about the constraints of the technology.

      But if you looked at a subset like the Big Island, then you’d get to work with the density challenge (27/sq mile).