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Google Fiber: Fast, but not free to cities

Imagine an Internet so fast that your middle-schoolers won’t clog the home network playing Minecraft. Imagine data speeds so robust that all the basketball fans in the office can stream March Madness games, without lags. Not that we would, but still...

This is the digital bliss Google is promising up to nine U.S. cities, including Charlotte, with the second wave of its Google Fiber data network. The company, which announced the expansion this month, is currently building out its network in Kansas City, Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah.

Should Charlotte get the nod, Google Fiber would bring consumers and businesses data speeds up to 1 gigabit per second, which is 75 to 100 times faster than standard broadband networks. For businesses, the benefits of such speeds are obvious, and cities that have Google Fiber would presumably have a handy recruiting tool when trying to lure high-growth, innovative companies and talent.

For consumers, a gigabit per second is probably more than most of us will ever need, but if you live in a household that happens to have users under 18 who happen to stream videos, you know it’s good to have some extra horsepower under the hood. Plus, according to reports out of Kansas City, Google Fiber technicians come to your house at the time of your scheduled appointment, not at some point of a designated four-hour window.

Where do we sign, right?

Not so fast. Like anything else, Google Fiber comes with a cost. In Kansas City, the development agreement with Google provided the company free “right of way” easements to dig up streets and climb up utility poles when installing its network. Google also got a promise to have all permit applications considered within five business days, access to dedicated city staff, and even use of city facilities to house and power Google equipment.

It’s hard to put a dollar figure on most of those items, but industry experts agree that the right of way access is immensely valuable and something cities might consider an income opportunity. That access, along with the other items in the K.C. agreement, amounted to giving a private company free and exclusive use of publicly owned assets.

Is that fair? No. But incentives aren’t about fairness. They’re about investing in companies that will bring the biggest return in jobs and economic development. We don’t always agree with the companies Charlotte chooses to invest in, but the concept is valid.

So what would Google Fiber bring? The network would likely attract technology-driven companies to Charlotte – as it already has begun to do in Kansas City. A bonus: Google Fiber also offers free basic residential broadband with only a construction fee – a choice that’s far less expensive than current broadband options. That could bring Internet access to households that couldn’t previously afford it – an important factor in bridging educational achievement gaps.

Charlotte, however, should enter into any agreement with its eyes wide open. What seems like crazy fast technology now might merely be an industry standard in a few years. In fact, earlier this month, cable provider Comporium announced plans for its own gigabit broadband network in downtown Rock Hill.

Also, as Google Fiber expands into more cities, the recruiting benefit becomes diluted. Still, you don’t want to be one of the cities left behind the data speed revolution. Charlotte should embrace, if cautiously, this investment opportunity.

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