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Big benefits or PR ploy?


Among the most successful and admired companies of the past century, Google rarely makes a move without extreme amounts of fanfare that often borders on chaos.

Its latest venture has produced the same result.

The tech giant received more than 1,100 responses from cities and town across the U.S., in response to a request for information (RFI) related to a ultra high-speed broadband Internet program that will test and develop a system Google claims will produce Internet speeds 100 times faster than anything currently available.

That the RFI included no mandate that applicants put on all manner of stunts is irrelevant. Mayors from Florida and Minnesota swimming with sharks and in freezing water seems to be the natural reaction when Google is seeking to attach itself to a town. Google executives plan to start visiting sites later this year before making a decision, though the company hasn’t said when and how many will be selected.

Although he sees no reason for such antics, Oxford attorney Stewart Rutledge can understand the excitement the program is generating. He believes the opportunities associated with being an experiment site have the potential to be lucrative.

“It would mean they would come in and install one of the fastest broadband networks in the world,” said Rutledge, who is working pro bono to lead Oxford’s effort. “It would be all fiber optic. It wouldn’t just be a fiber optic back bone, it would be fiber optic all the way to your screen. That doesn’t exist now.”

Winners would receive what amounts to free advertising in the form of the attention garnered by the program, but Rutledge is quick to emphasize the economic benefits.

“In the short term, it would mean everything would be instant,” he said. “You would have what is considered ‘perfect’ Internet. In the long term, it would be a huge boon for the economy and for development in the area. 

“It would allow each of those communities to have an incomparable ability to support technological development and testing of technology that may exist nationally and internationally 10 to 15 years from now. A city like Oxford could provide the platforms for that technology to be implemented today. It’s an interesting choice of terms, but the fiber optics would move us light years ahead in technological advancement and stimulation of technological growth. The short-term benefits are huge but the long-term benefits are even bigger. I don’t think the effect this could have can be overestimated.”

Oxford Mayor Pat Patterson said the project could pump research and development money into the city and into Ole Miss. “We don’t know of another situation exactly like this one that has come along,” he said. “It would be awfully good for everybody involved.”

As it stands now, the big winner is Google. The program has become a hot topic in the tech world, and news coverage of the towns pursuing it has been thorough. By simply issuing an RFI, Google has secured itself an untold amount of perfectly free advertising.

“It’s getting a lot of attention because it’s Google,” said Sue Sperry, spokeswoman for AT&T Mississippi. “And, as a PR person, I have to say that it’s a brilliant idea. You’re getting all these cities to compete for something that’s probably never going to happen.

“It’s kind of a PR stunt. It’s really fiber to the premises. With that kind of speed, most computers could never process it. It’s a very small minority of customers who would need that level of speed and be able to afford it. You’re paying a $150, $175 a month for that kind of speed. Then you get to the point where your brain can’t even make a distinction.

“Our position is, that’s fine if they want to do that. We love competition. But we’re still working on getting the dial-up customer to go to the $20-a-month DSL. Availability and what will work and what will be affordable for most people (is going to be an issue). 

“Fiber to the premises is going to be here someday. They’re setting people up to think that there’s some magic way to do this. A company never does anything unless they can get some revenue return on it. They can’t do it unless they do it to a big scale.”

What struck Sperry’s boss, AT&T Mississippi CEO Mayo Flynt, the most about Google’s RFI is the maelstrom it created among applicants.

“To me, it’s kind of like Google kicking over the ant hill,” Flynt said. “They kicked that ant hill and now everybody’s scrambling around. The problem I have with it is they’re getting a lot of people’s hopes up. A lot of folks are doing a lot of work to try and win the prize. It’s like Willy Wonka. Everybody wants the golden ticket. I don’t know that they realized what they had set off.”


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About Clay Chandler