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Charlotte group building support for Google Fiber

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com

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Charlotte entrepreneurs, students and technology leaders are gearing up for a citywide push to build support for Google Fiber.

The technology giant announced in February that Charlotte was among nine U.S. metro areas where it would like to install Google Fiber, a data network touted for offering Internet access speeds up to 100 times faster than basic broadband systems.

Advocates say the service would bring jobs by making the city more attractive to entrepreneurs, and they tout the economic benefits of bringing high-speed access to low-income areas.

But now the work begins: The city of Charlotte has until May 1 to submit a detailed checklist to Google so that the company can evaluate if the city is a good fit.

Phil Reiger, the assistant director for the Charlotte Department of Transportation and the project manager for Google, said the city is “working furiously right now” to give the company “a holistic view of what it would be like to come to Charlotte.”

And Terry Cox, founder of the Business Innovation Growth (BIG) Council, is launching a campaign to inform Charlotteans about the potential and build their support. Her group, Charlotte Hearts Google, is meeting for the first time on April 29.

Google Fiber works like current cable and broadband services, only faster. Fiber-optic cables run to homes, and the speed allows no-waiting downloads and uploads of big graphics, photos, videos and other large files.

A basic broadband speed is about 10 to 20 megabits per second. Google Fiber promises 1,000 megabits – or 1 gigabit – per second.

Besides Charlotte, Google is looking at bringing the service to the Triangle, Atlanta, Nashville, San Antonio, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Portland and San Jose. Those metro areas include a total of 34 cities.

Google is building out a fiber network in Kansas City, has bought an existing one in Provo, Utah, and is planning one in Austin, Texas.

Hundreds of ‘fiber-hoods’

Google is asking each city to provide details on existing infrastructure – utility poles, gas and electricity lines – so technicians will know where to put the fiber-optic cable. Google also seeks permission to access existing infrastructure and assurance that the city’s permitting and construction process is speedy and predictable.

Google expects to choose the cities before year’s end, company spokeswoman Jenna Wandres said.

The lobbying efforts won’t have a direct impact on whether Charlotte is chosen as a Google Fiber city, she said. That decision will depend more on the logistics information provided by the cities.

“It’s definitely not a competition,” Wandres said. “We ... want to bring Fiber to all 34 cities.”

The lobbying efforts will become more important as Google considers where in the city to build its network, based on demand, Wandres said.

After approving a metro area, Google divides a city into hundreds of “fiber-hoods.” Each one must have a certain percentage of households that agree to sign up for Google Fiber once it’s available. Depending on the population density of the area, that goal ranges from 5 percent to 25 percent of the households in that fiber-hood.

Aaron Deacon, who helped lead the Google Fiber community efforts in Kansas City, said the lobbying was most important for generating internal excitement about the impact of the service.

In 2011, after Google selected Kansas City as its first site, Fiber enthusiasts – from hospital administrators to librarians, techies to school superintendents – put together a 125-page document, or “idea dump,” of all the potential benefits of Fiber in the community.

That then spurred the neighborhood-level campaigns, often just to offer basic explanations of what fiber-optic service is.

Kansas City subscribers are getting Google Fiber Internet for $70 a month, or gigabit internet and cable TV for $120 a month. Google also offers basic broadband at current speeds for a one-time fee of $300, with no monthly fee.

Nevertheless, the process of installing Google Fiber hasn’t come without problems. In Kansas City, some residents have voiced concerns over decades-old trees being cut to stumps and gas leaks inadvertently caused by construction crews, according to news accounts.

Turning up the heat

The spread of Google Fiber also stands to affect existing internet providers like Time Warner Cable and Comcast, experts say.

The big companies have been increasing their speeds steadily for years, but it’s been at their own pace, said Jeff Kagan, a technology industry analyst based in Atlanta. Now Google has turned up the heat, which will force many companies to make a “quantum leap” in speed in order to compete, Kagan said.

“That’s a big investment ... no carrier wanted to have to make,” Kagan said, “but now they’re all starting to do it.”

A spokesman for Time Warner Cable said the company stands by the popular tiers of speed it offers, as well as their value.

“While Google Fiber talks about what it may (or) plans to offer, Time Warner Cable is up and running today as well as innovating for tomorrow,” said spokesman Scott Pryzwansky, in an emailed statement.

Nashville’s YouTube push

Cox said people from a variety of backgrounds have asked to get involved in the Charlotte effort, from marketing firms to high-tech startups, UNC Charlotte student leaders to a telecommunications attorney.

The other eight metropolitan areas are launching grassroots efforts of their own. A group in Nashville launched a YouTube campaign in which more than a dozen different organizations and businesses – including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, tech companies and even the city zoo – talked about how Google Fiber would transform their work.

Advocates in the Triangle are making a movie that will be produced by Triangle techies and feature local writers, comedians, musicians and artists.

“We need people who can help do production coordination, get flash mobs out at places, write up blogs afterward, get the word out ... bring lots of people together,” said Arik Abel – founder of the hyperlocal entertainment startup Everest Live – in a trailer for the movie, featured on the Triangle site fiberedup.com.

Cox said building up Charlotte’s grassroots efforts is a way to unite the city for a common cause.

“A campaign like this brings disparate groups together, groups that wouldn’t naturally have a reason to get together,” she said.

McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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