In February 2010, the Mayor of Duluth, MN jumped into the icy waters of Lake Superior. A month later, the Mayor of Sarasota, FL got into a tank full of sharks. That same month, the city of Topeka, KS changed its name. What these and many other stunts had in common was that they were designed to convince Google that their town was the best place to build its first Gigabit fiber network. More than 1,100 cities competed in this beauty contest. The single, lucky winner was Kansas City.
About five years earlier, conditions in the market were very different. I was sitting in a conference room in San Francisco. I was representing the City of San Francisco in negotiations with Google and Earthlink to construct a citywide Wi-Fi network. That project failed, at least in part due to a clash between the red tape served up by the city and the red carpet expected by the providers. The parties got frustrated or bored and walked away.
The market seems to have now concluded that Google’s fiber model is the way of the future. Create scarcity by holding a contest for cities to compete to be the first location for a new breakthrough service. Determine where and when to make service available by getting neighborhoods to compete by aggregating their demand. Rinse and repeat, right? Maybe not. I think many questions remain about whether this model can scale beyond an experiment.
Using these strategies, Google did find a way to get local governments to reconsider and, maybe, streamline their red tape — rights of way, utility pole attachments, and universal service requirements. And they cleared up a central point of confusion from the experiment with San Francisco years earlier — who is the buyer and who is the seller. And other providers are now following their lead. CSpire, a mobile operator in Mississippi, recently convinced 33 towns to compete to “Get Fiber First.” Nine of the 33 towns who competed were chosen.
All of these developments suggest that Google’s model may be repeatable. By all accounts, the folks in Kansas City, and soon Austin and Provo are thrilled with the progress in their towns. And I am sure the nine towns in Mississippi are happy about CSpire’s selection. But where does this leave the 24 towns that weren’t chosen by CSpire? And what about the 1,100 towns who danced for Google and didn’t “win”? At the risk of making the perfect the enemy of the good here, I will argue that this is where the challenge lies.
What do the hundreds, thousands of communities who recognize the importance of being part of the Gigabit movement do now? I might argue that, a dangerous precedent was set by the Google Fiber RFP and CSpire contests. Are there communities now sitting idle and waiting for another ISP to surface — for another RFI or RFP to come out — dreaming up new stunts to attract the attention of these knights in shining armor? I admit, this seems like the worst, most cynical view of where things could stand. Many communities are making progress in private partnerships, planning community networks, building networks with municipal and cooperative electric partners, pursuing grant and other sources of funding. But many also appear to be lying dormant.
What seems most important is that communities play a proactive role in driving progress in this area. Communities should think about their role at the table. The actor Jude Law was quoted once to say “I’m only wanted by directors for the image I give off, and it makes me angry. I always wanted to be an actor and not a beauty pageant winner.” That’s the attitude that will move communities forward.