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Grand Rapids makes a case for Google Fiber

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Optical fiber on display at the science museum in Nihonbashi, Tokyo.

Optical fiber on display at the science museum in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. /kunstkammer on Flickr

Japan has it. Other European and east Asian countries have it, and now Google is working to bring fiber connectivity to the United States. Grand Rapids is among dozens of cities vying to host the Google Fiber initiative.

Internet connectivity has progressed in the last 20 years. In the 1990s, few households had access to the Internet, and those who did had an expensive dial-up connection that monopolized phone lines. Now, broadband connections, which can transfer more digital information between computers than dial-up, dominate the scene. Wireless networks, a mainstay in coffee shops and other venues, spring from these connections.

Enter fiber, a technology that first saw light in the 1970s. Fiber has been gaining momentum in the last several years as the fastest connection. "Instead of driving to work in your Ford Focus, it would be like taking a super sonic jet to work," explained Douglas Lang, founder of Grand Rapids Technology Partnership. "Instead of driving to work, Scotty beams you to work. It's that instantaneous."

Lang is collaborating with representatives from the City of Grand Rapids, technology enthusiasts and other grassroots groups to lobby Google to pick Grand Rapids as the test market.

Although fiber technology has existed and been in development for nearly 40 years, the United States has been slow to adopt it in its communications infrastructure. According to a January 2009 brief submitted to the National Alliance for Media Art and Culture, the United States ranks seventh globally for information technology.

Google wants to turn the tide. Just as upgrading from dial-up to broadband created the capability for Internet users to watch streaming videos easily where it once would have taken hours to complete, fiber will open doors for more interactive, broadband-hogging media. Google wants to foster the next wave of technological advancement while also figuring out what it takes to set up the physical structure for a fiber network. To that end, it has put out a call to U.S. cities asking why their community would make a great incubator. It would offer the Internet service at competitive prices.

"The history of Grand Rapids is steeped in design, creativity, entrepreneurship. We're not solely tied to the automotive industry. We have a fairly diverse economic base in Grand Rapids," Lang said, citing the proportion of LEED accredited buildings, ArtPrize, the population under 40 and the city's progressive reputation. "We have so much going for us. Grand Rapids is Michigan's best kept secret."

Much more than city culture goes into Google's decision. Residents can nominate their city and the city government must also put in an official request by March 26. Although the company has stayed tight-lipped about its criteria, the city application includes questions about demographics, climate and terrain.

To create a fiber backbone, Google must string fiber cable on utility poles or run them through underground tunnels.

"Grand Rapids owns about a third of the utility poles in the city. We also have a significant amount of underground conduit and some dark fiber," said Sally Wesorick, an information technology analyst for the city. "Use of those assets and others that we might have available might be negotiable."

Grand Rapids fiber outposts have been showing up on social networks. The Facebook fan page is over 12,000 strong. GRTP plans to capitalize off the excitement with a community meeting at 6 p.m. tomorrow at Urban Mill Cafe (629 Michigan NE) to brainstorm how Grand Rapidians can put their best foot forward.

"This is just a request for information. At this point, this is not even a request for proposal," Wesorick reminded. "They're just requesting information from the city, and where they'll go with that, they don't make any projections or promises."

Although there is much enthusiasm for Google Fiber, Lang and Wesorick find it difficult to predict what fiber would mean for Grand Rapids. The easy answers would be the capability to download movies instantaneously and to have a pipe big enough for Medical Hill to transfer higher quality scans and conduct multicity conference calls. Predicting beyond the obvious is just about as hard as predicting what broadband has done for Internet users before it came on the scene.

"Economic development wise, high speed internet can really help a community to draw business and industry to their region," Wesorick said. "It's becoming a more and more important utility to be able to conduct business."

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 in a state that's marching backwards into the future, this is a great move at a great time. so many people would benefit from this