Now that Google has wrapped up the application period for its open access, 1Gbps fiber testbed, we know that more than 1,000 US cities want the network. Only a couple will get it, though; what's going to happen to everyone else?
Broadband consultant Craig Settles and Greensboro, North Carolina fiber booster Jay Ovittore have joined forces to start "Communities United for Broadband." The idea is simple: create a place where communities can share strategies for moving forward with high-speed broadband plans—even if Google says no to their bid.
Enthusiasm about broadband has been running high, especially during the last 18 months. In 2009, President Obama's stimulus bill set aside billions for broadband. That money, now being dispersed, is already funding plenty of regional and middle-mile projects, and it encouraged communities to think more carefully about how broadband could be made better. Then came the National Broadband Plan, which has inspired broadband discussion over the last year and now promotes some major changes like providing Universal Service Fund money to broadband providers instead of phone companies.
But no local mayor jumped in a shark tank or changed its city's name to get federal broadband stimulus funds. It took Google's out-of-the-blue announcement earlier this year to really bring broadband excitement from governments down to the grassroots level. With so much enthusiasm generated by the project, and with cities having spent so much time to collect all sorts of useful data about their own communities, now would seem the perfect opportunity for people to take their broadband destiny into their own hands—with or without Google.
That's what Settles and Ottivore hope to do. They're starting with a Facebook group to coordinate broadband boosters around the country. Already, a few hundred people have signed on, among them many local administrators of the Google fiber bids.
Google's project really "brought into focus what the value of broadband is," Settles tells Ars. Even before the project has been built, Google's announcement has woken people up to what's possible; maximum speeds of 6Mbps from a local DSL provider simply aren't state-of-the-art. People want more, they know it's possible, but many see no way to get it from existing providers.
Everyone wanted a piece of the Google action because the company was ready to build the network itself, pledging to charge users quite reasonable rates for access. But if municipalities or regional governments are going to get into the fiber-building game, that's a different and much scarier proposition, with real tax money on the table.
Settles is no stranger to these issues, having just written a book called Fighting the Next Good Fight: Bringing true broadband to your community, but he says that "we're not in the pitchfork business" when it comes to dealing with incumbents. If existing companies will provide the services that local residents want, fine. If communities can use the recent wave of broadband excitement to encourage new entrants or nonprofits to deploy fiber, terrific. But if no one steps up to the plate, Settles encourages local governments to take the initiative themselves.
"I believe incumbents are unaware of, or unconcerned with, the depth of people’s dislike for their service provider as well as the lack of broadband competition," he said in the official announcement. "The fact that, spending almost no money and making no concrete offers, Google generated so many community and individual responses within just seven weeks clearly shows how much incumbents have failed the market. Our effort on Facebook gives communities one path to helping correct this failure."
The page is already stimulating discussion. When one participant asked about starting a "fiber co-op, akin to the farmer's co-ops, that allows cities to band together for bargaining purposes and equipment purchases," another person offered to talk, saying, "We are already down this road and would love to help others along in other communities."
As Settles noted in our conversation, there aren't many "best practices" in this area. What works? What doesn't? Certainly, as municipal involvement with free WiFi a few years back showed us, there are good ways and bad ways to get governments involved in infrastructure buildouts. Sharing information, pooling resources, and grouping buying power should help, though Google could certainly do its part by producing detailed best practices guides for ISPs based on its own experience building the 1Gbps testbed.
Last week, Google seemed to hint at just such a plan. "Wherever we decide to build," the company wrote, "we hope to learn lessons that will help improve Internet access everywhere. After all, you shouldn't have to jump into frozen lakes and shark tanks to get ultra high-speed broadband."
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