News Leadership 3.0

February 23, 2010

Google’s “Gig” fiber network: Could it help your town?

On Feb. 10, Google announced the initial, experimental roll out of their own high-speed broadband fiber network—initially to “a small number of trial locations” across the US. According to Google’s blog: “We’ll deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today with 1 gigabit per second, fiber-to-the-home connections. We plan to offer service at a competitive price to at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people.”
What might such internet access mean for local civic engagement and the health of communities?

(This is part of a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” See all posts in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Being able to send and receive data at a gigabit per second primarily means that two-way, real-time use of video, games and simulations, medical scans, remote monitoring and control, databases, and other kinds of large or complex files or communications would suddenly become easy and reliable.

For example: What if any community member could easily attend a local meeting without having to find a babysitter or make a special trip—simply by using by reliable, real-time, two-way video conferencing? What if local hospitals or clinics could instantly share high-resolution MRI images with leading medical experts around the world for instant consultation? What kinds of job and education opportunities might arise? What could it mean for local news, information, and education?

Of course, gigabit-speed broadband also would allow more mundane types of internet use. If some or all of your community previously had little or no access to broadband, simply allowing everyone to do better than dial up would be a huge step forward.

Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of search products and user experience—and co-chair of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy—noted in a recent interview that Google’s Gig project supports Recommendation 8 of the Knight Commission report, which says:

“Set ambitious standards for nationwide broadband availability and adopt public policies encouraging consumer demand for broadband services.”

The Knight report focused on government leadership for nationwide broadband access. The FCC is currently formulating its National Broadband Plan, and many companies and organizations (including Google) have submitted ideas and comments to FCC for this plan. But in the meantime, companies can push ahead with their own broadband access projects.

Said Mayer, “Here at Google, there’s been a return to focus on access issues. Especially community wifi and broadband access to communities. We had a debate on the Commission about what does ‘high quality access’ really mean for local communities? The Commission decided that it had to mean broadband. Google’s Gig project pushes the boundaries around the issue of broadband access.”

Access to the internet remains a crucial issue throughout the US. A February 2010 report from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration notes:

“Despite the growing importance of the Internet in American life, over 30% of households and 35% of persons do not use the Internet at home, and 30% of all persons do not use the Internet anywhere. Those with no broadband access at home amount to more than 35% of all households and approximately 40% of all persons, with a larger proportion in rural areas in both categories. Overall, the two most important reasons given by survey respondents for not having broadband access at home are ‘don’t need’ and ‘too expensive.’ Inadequate or no computer is also a major reason given for no home broadband adoption. In rural America, lack of availability is a much more important reason for non-adoption than in urban areas.”

ACTION STEP If you’re interested in bring Google’s gigabit fiber network to your community, you can nominate your community through Google’s request for information (RFI). Deadline for nominations: March 26.

Google apparently is giving strongest consideration to nominations from eager, willing, and capable local governments. So before you nominate your community for Google’s fiber network, it’s a good idea to meet with local government officials to get their buy-in. Ideally the nomination to Google should be made by local officials—but if you’re the one making the nomination to Google, make sure to clearly demonstrate active local government interest and involvement.

News organizations in towns vying to get fiber broadband from Google can support this effort through journalistic investigation and coverage. What’s the current status of broadband access in your community, really? Double-check local broadband provider’s claims of geographic availability and upstream/downstream.

Paint a picture of a possible local future. Talk to local technologists, government officials, and civic groups: If your whole community had access everywhere to a gigabit fiber network, how might that affect the local economic development, jobs, education, health and welfare, and civic engagement?

Embrace debate. Obviously, a ubiquitous gigabit-speed fiber network wouldn’t have pros and cons for any community. Some points for public discussion:

  • Cost. Google is not offering to do this for free. Communities will have to pay for the service. Google says this cost will be “competitive,” but can your town really afford even that? For more far-flung rural communities, roll out costs might be even higher.
  • Commitment. Google’s current project is just an initial experiment. It’s unclear what kinds of long-term commitments Google is willing to make to communities. Could your community come to rely on its fiber network, only to be abandoned by Google, or to have it taken over by a more costly owner?
  • Local government readiness, attitude. What kind of shape are your civic data systems and processes in currently? If they’re currently a mess, faster internet access won’t fix that. Also, if this project doesn’t have any influential champions in local government, or if local officials or agencies generally resist transparency or change, civic benefits might be few.
  • Local values and culture. The fiber network can carry any kind of content—including violent video games, offensive music, religious and political extremism, and porn. Is your community willing and able to manage such challenges?
  • What about mobile phones? Gigabit-speed fiber networks are geared mainly toward computers. Yet mobile phone proliferation is much higher than computer use in almost every US community. If a Google Gig might not be the bets approach to connectivity in your community, consider what more you could do with cell networks, especially cellular broadband.


How much they are going to spread this service.It seems quite promising but i live in India not US.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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