The Internet search company has invited 34 cities, including San Jose and Palo Alto, to work with Google on setting up citywide fiber-optics systems of the very sort that local officials have been coveting for the past two decades. The 34 cities are scattered all over the country and include Portland, Ore.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Atlanta, Ga.
If Palo Alto chooses to participate, this would not be its first attempt at working with Google to create a citywide system capable of delivering Internet at the speed of 1 gigabit-per-second (today, the average Internet connection speed is 9.8 megabits per second, according to the city, or roughly a hundredth of a gigabit). In 2011, the city was one of many to vie for Google Fiber, only to see the prize go to Kansas City, Kan. That was just the latest setback for a long-deferred project known locally as "Fiber to the Premise." In 2009, the council negotiated with a consortium of Internet companies that offered to expand the city's 41-mile fiber-optic ring. That deal collapsed amidst the economic downturn when funding dried up and the consortium asked the city for more funding.
Last year, the council signaled its determination to implement a fiber program by selecting "Technology and the Connected City" as one of the city's top priorities. Earlier this month, the council agreed unanimously to carry over this priority for another year. To underscore its commitment to making the fiber dream a reality, the council unanimously agreed last October to pursue master plans for citywide fiber and WiFi systems. At that meeting, Councilman Larry Klein voiced enthusiasm about fiber's potential, saying: "This is is where the world is going and if we want to continue to be the leader in innovation, we need to be there as well." It helped that the city's "dark fiber" reserve fund, which collects fees from commercial customers who use the network, had a balance of more than $15 million last summer.
In its announcement, Google invited the 34 cities to submit checklists that would help the company speed up the process of hooking up customers to ultra-fast Internet. The company noted that the web has gotten both faster and more useful in recent years, with "activities like streaming movies, storing files online, video chatting and more" enabled by broadband connections. The next chapter of the web, Google says, "will run on even faster speeds."
"There continues to be huge interest from consumers and communities in faster broadband," the Google announcement states. "That's why we want to bring more people access to Google Fiber — Internet that's up to 100 times faster than basic broadband." The company said it selected the cities because they are "led by people who have been working hard to bring faster Internet speeds and the latest technologies to their residents."
"We believe these are communities who will do amazing things with a gig," the Google announcement states. "And they are diverse — not just geographically, but in the ways they'll give us opportunities to learn about the wide range of challenges and obstacles that communities might face in trying to build a new fiber network."
The announcement was greeted with excitement in Palo Alto, where officials met with Google representatives last week to discuss the new initiative. Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental told the Weekly that the city will submit the checklist that Google requested. The list has to include information about the city's utilities infrastructure (including locations of utility poles, conduits and water lines) and assurances that the city's permitting process can accommodate a project of such magnitude.
Reichental noted that because the city operates its own utilities and because it had already put together the application for Google Fiber in 2011, the process won't be too onerous. The cities have until May 1 to submit the checklists.
He also said the city's decision to participate in the new Google effort does not in any way conflict with the existing effort to create a master plan for a citywide fiber system.
"We're happy to encourage all sorts of players," Reichental said. "It's a free market and in Palo Alto, the end game is to have one or more options for competitive gigabit provisions in the city."
Reichental also said it's important to continue to pursue the master plan.
"At the end of the day, we want to look out for our interests and make sure that if (Google) doesn't work out, if they don't deploy in Palo Alto, that we still have our plans to come up with a solution to bring fiber to the community."
After Google receives checklists and completes studies for each of the interested cities, it will make an announcement on which cities will be the next to get Google Fiber. The company plans to announce its selections by the end of 2014. In addition to Kansas City, Google also has ongoing fiber projects in place in Provo, Utah, and Austin, Texas.
"While we'd love to bring Fiber to every one of these cities, it might not work out for everyone," Google's announcement stated. "Cities who have worked with us through this process, however, will have taken a big step forward in making their community ready for construction by any provider."
In a statement, City Manager James Keene said the city is "pleased to accept Google's invitation to participate in this new phase of assessing how to bring 1 gigabit fiber to more communities.
"Our collaboration will complement the open market approach our City Council has directed us to pursue to bring fiber to the premise in Palo Alto," Keene said. "Google's invitation will advance our ability to achieve this goal."