The Deadline Is Tomorrow But Google Fiber Is Already Changing Towns

Tomorrow is the last day municipalities can submit their applications to be the location for Google’s experimental fiber-to-the-home network that will deliver 1 gigabit per second to homes. While not many are aware of how fast a Gigabit connection could be or what it could be used for (our commenters think 3-D television is a good use, the smart grid is a possibility and I’m partial to the idea of an always-on home, which I submitted), it’s pretty clear that a lot of municipalities want it anyway.

Aside from some of the crazy stunts that mayors and towns have pulled in order to attract Google’s attention (swimming in frozen lakes! swimming with sharks!), I thought the greatest thing to come out of this is how towns are reaching out to their citizens using social media. Christopher Swanson, the project manager for getting Google Fiber to Duluth, Minn., says “Social media has been the most important part of our engagement. We did postcards and all kinds of things, but what has brought in the most involvement has been social media.” He credits social media with getting about 30 percent of citizens on board with the town’s fiber application.

My hometown of Austin, Texas, has set up a web site, sends out tweets and has created a Facebook page that has more than  5,000 fans. Elsewhere, the effort to engage citizens has encouraged city officials to use social media tools and citizens to in turn engage with their governments. I hope that lasts, because that’s potentially farther-reaching than the initial fiber effort.

That said, however, some of the engagement is a bit creepy. Check out the City of Asheville’s pandering of their students to Google. The elementary-school kids chanting, “I love you, Google” is great for the Google brand, but hard to watch. We’ve already discussed what it might cost Google to build out the network, which would serve between 50,000 and 500,000, and have outlined other areas of the world that have gigabit connections already.

So while there may only be just one Google testbed network announced some time this year, the benefits could accrue to municipalities through a more connected and engaged citizenry and hopefully through showing the U.S. what it means to have a truly open fiber network that could boost competition for broadband connectivity. From Austin’s FAQs on the topic:

Moreover, Google plans to open the network to competitive service providers. This means you may choose to buy your service from a completely different company – possibly a local Austin service provider. You old-timers will remember the dialup modem days, when we used to be able to choose from a long list of Internet service providers. The Google open network would restore that choice, but this time running at gigabit speed.

This openness is the answer to the lack of competition when it comes to broadband access in the U.S. today, not more data or wireless networks as the National Broadband Plan is trying to offer as a salve. So as we count down to the application deadline, and the eventual network buildout, I’m hoping the entire process makes its mark on cities even if they don’t win.

Related GigaOM Pro content:

Google Buzz, Fiber and Their Place in the Smart Grid (sub. req’d)