Duluth says Google network could be 'magnet' for growthby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Duluth, Minn. — Just days after Google pitched its nationwide offer to bring super-fast broadband to a winning community, Duluth Mayor Don Ness was elbowing for his city to be first in line.
The youthful Ness quickly formed a core team, and on Feb. 18 threw a community organizational meeting. About 50 of the city's leading business people mingled with an equal number of largely unshaven geeks to hear the mayor's pitch.
"What does Google fiber mean to the Twin Ports?" Ness began. "It means that we will be a magnet for talent. We'll be a magnet for venture capital. We'll be a magnet for entrepreneurs that are looking to test and use this new, exciting tool."
Google is offering to build a one-gigabit-per-second fiber network to connect each home in a community of between 50,000 and 500,000 people. It promises a network open to competitors, with service at an affordable price. And it invites applications from governments and individuals.
A network like that would almost certainly attract new business and generate new jobs. Duluth is far from the only city chasing Google's offer -- even within Minnesota.
But city officials have high hopes. Duluth quickly teamed up with Superior, Wis., just across the harbor, to pitch a combined Google Twin Ports.
The local response has been remarkable, according to Chris Swanson, CEO of PureDriven, a Two Harbors business that drives Internet traffic to Web sites. Swanson is spearheading the city's effort to attract Google, a bid that has created considerable buzz in the community.
"I didn't realize how popular fiber would be," Swanson said.
Super-high-speed Internet is more than cool. It could be a leap ahead in useful applications for Duluth's colleges and universities, and the city's large health care industry.
The network would be 10 times faster than today's state-of-the-art networks, such as a 100-megabit system in Lafayette, La. It could dramatically expand the way people communicate, said Bill Coleman, director of Community Technology Advisors in Mahtomedi, which advised Duluth.
"That kind of network would allow a teacher to be in a classroom, really anywhere, and have high-definition broadcast out to students sitting in their homes doing that kind of work," Coleman said. "So, it could really transform a community. And I think the companies that create those applications would flock to the winning community, to roll out those applications in kind of a test laboratory."
But Duluth is not the only Minnesota community applying for the Google project. Dakota County is putting in a bid, Coleman said. Community leaders in St. Paul's St. Anthony Park neighborhood also are considering one. Even the City of St. Paul is a potential competitor, according to Andrea Casselton, St. Paul's director of technology and communications.
"At this point we haven't made a final decision about whether or not to actually put in an application," Castleton said. "Google's kind of vague at this point. Who knows what criteria they'll use to pick a winner."
Considering the likely flood of competitors, she considers a successful bid a long shot for any community.
There could be a downside to a winning bid, according to Christopher Mitchell with the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self Reliance. Mitchell said the network offers a tremendous opportunity, but raises questions about control.
"Google's interest lies with Google," Mitchell said. "Communities need to be in control of the infrastructure that they depend on. So even though the interest of Google today lies in providing this great network, no one knows if 10 years down the line Google is still going to be interested in doing that.
"They may sell the network. They may change policies," Mitchell said. "So a community's long-term interest lies when it makes the rules for its networks."
Duluth continues stirring the pot, with a Web page, YouTube videos, and a campaign encouraging locals to nominate the region. Supporters are trying to raise $30,000, mostly for marketing, to introduce local residents to Google. Consultant Bill Coleman says the Twin Ports has a shot.
"I think they have as good a chance as anyone," Coleman said. "No one has a very good chance, but I think that Duluth does have a good story to tell."
Google, which wants to move quickly, will consider local support, local regulatory issues -- and weather --- in making its choice.
Applications are due March 26.
- Morning Edition, 02/26/2010, 6:20 a.m.