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Can Google Fiber turn Charlotte into a tech hub?

By Eric Frazier
Eric Frazier
Eric Frazier covers economic development. He has been reporting and editing at the Observer for more than 15 years. If you have a story idea or news tip to share, contact him at:

In generations past, communities rose or fell if the path of the next major horse trail, railroad or interstate highway landed within their borders. In the digital age, will the same be true for high-speed Internet access?

Can’t say I know for sure, but it’s increasingly looking that way. So it was big news last week when Google announced that Charlotte is one of the nine metro areas where it would like to build its super-fast Google Fiber network, with access speeds up to 100 times faster than today’s broadband service.

For one thing, it makes Google the latest deep-pocketed national company to have concluded Charlotte looks like a good bet for the future.

For another, it could put Charlotte on the front lines of whatever’s coming next in the digital revolution.

To be sure, we’ve never been known for our thriving tech industry. In North Carolina, that distinction goes to the Raleigh-Durham area and its Research Triangle Park. But who knows? If Google decides to greenlight construction of its 1 gigabit-per-second broadband service in Charlotte late this year, perhaps it will accelerate the growth of our emerging tech sector.

Geoff Ables thinks so. He’s managing partner of C5 Insight, a business consulting and Internet technology services firm based at UNC Charlotte’s PORTAL business incubation center.

Its roots stretch back only to 2002, but C5 is growing fast, with 23 employees and a network of contractors that brings its team up to about 75. C5 made Inc. magazine’s list of America’s 5,000 fastest-growing private companies for 2013, boasting 2012 revenues of $2.6 million. That was up from 2009 revenues of $772,000.

Ables says Google Fiber would be a plum asset for his business, which often involves teleconferencing and application sharing with clients across the U.S. as well as in the Netherlands, Germany and Japan.

“Ten years ago this would have been much more difficult and costly,” he told me via email. “Better broadband promises to open up more opportunities for us with remote clients.”

Google has built most of its first Fiber network in Kansas City, Mo., bought an existing one in Provo, Utah, and is building one in Austin, Texas. In Kansas City, Google officials say a handful of tech startups have already started experimenting with the huge new data pipeline, trying to create new applications that can harness its power.

Charlotte has already learned from the banking crisis how dangerous it can be to rely too heavily on any one industry. Now we’re touting our energy hub and hoping to grow other sectors. In today’s increasingly Internet-driven economy, adding fast-growing tech startups such as C5 Insights can only help.

Paul Wetenhall, head of UNCC’s Ventureprise business incubator, put it to me this way recently: “Five years, 10 years from now, if Bank of America is Bank of Singapore – you just don’t know – you want to be ready for it with many more diverse companies than we have today.”

Google says it won’t know until late this year whether Charlotte will make the cut for the new Google Fiber network. I don’t have the expertise to say whether it is the game-changer Google says it is. But this is one time I suspect we’d all rather be part of the experiment than on the sidelines watching.

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