Home » MBJ FEATURE » Mississippi enters the Google fray

Mississippi enters the Google fray

Jackson, Oxford in the running for high-speed internet program that would be launched next year

Site selection for most major economic development projects is wrapped in a shroud of secrecy that would make the CIA jealous.

Typically, the public learns its city or state was in the running for something similar to a Toyota or Nissan plant when the site is either chosen or passed over.

A new ultra high-speed Internet program Google is planning to launch at some point in the next year is taking the opposite course.

The tech giant sent out requests for information (RFI) earlier this year. When the submission deadline passed the afternoon of March 26, Google had received 1,100 responses from cities and communities across the U.S. The company did not release the names of the applicants, but Clinton, Canton and Oxford are three Mississippi towns the Mississippi Business Journal was able to confirm are pursuing the program.

Google plans to visit sites toward the end of this year, but has not given an exact date when the winners will be announced, or how many will be selected.

Winning communities will serve as test sites for Google’s 1GBPS Internet. The company will install fiber optic cables that will produce Internet speeds the company claims are 100 times faster than anything currently available.

Details about who will fund the fiber optic infrastructure installation are still murky, but Google did not include in the roughly 30-page RFI public financing as a criterion for selection.

What was included were questions that sought to glean as much information as possible about an applicant’s demographics and infrastructure, such as the type of government a town has and the number of telephone poles and people within the city limits.

“It was very substantive, infrastructure-related questions, which you can tell are specific and would be applicable to them wanting to come in and piggy-back and/or replace those infrastructures,” said Stewart Rutledge, an Oxford attorney who is working pro bono to lead that city’s efforts to serve as an experiment site. “To install any kind of network, they’re going to tear up roads and tear down poles and have all sorts of easements. It’s just like putting a water line down as far as installation. They wanted to get an idea of who they’re dealing with. There wasn’t very much room for subjectivity or narrative in that RFI. It was very standardized so they could compare apples to apples, which I think was wise.”

Once cities and communities got wind of Google’s RFI, some put on elaborate displays to get the company’s attention. On March 1, Topeka, Kan., changed its name for the day to Google, Kan. The mayor of Sarasota, Fla., swam in an aquarium full of bonnethead sharks. That move was in response to the mayor of Duluth, Minn., taking a dip in a frozen lake.

Oxford Mayor Pat Patterson and Stewart Rutledge

Oxford Mayor Pat Patterson and Stewart Rutledge

Oxford Mayor Pat Patterson has promised no such outlandish behavior, but does believe his city is “well situated demographically for this. We’re a small, progressive town that I think Google’s looking for.”

Instead of shoving an elected official into dangerous waters, Oxford is letting its merits do most of the talking.

““I would say that our application is focusing more on substance rather than hype,” Rutledge said. “Although we definitely have been publicizing it, we’re putting a much greater focus on emphasizing to Google why they should come here from the standpoint that they originally proposed. They didn’t ask for PR gimmicks, they didn’t ask for crazy stunts, which is the tone this thing has taken on, that whoever does the craziest thing will get it.

“We’re focusing on what Google wants, not potentially self-serving PR gimmicks. I wouldn’t necessarily expect our mayor to be swimming with sharks, but would support anything the community can do because Google did say community support is a factor. You can wear a clown suit all day long but if you don’t have the substance behind it, it’s going to be irrelevant to Google. I kind of have an idea that Google is probably laughing all the way to the bank with all this free publicity. It’s been brilliant in that regard, but they never asked for that. We’re not going to win because we do the craziest and most ridiculous thing. We’re going to try to win because we’re best suited for the project.”

The Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership referred questions about the program to Canton and Clinton officials. Multiple e-mail and phone messages to each seeking comment went unreturned last week.

“It appears to me (Google) has a two-fold desire with this,” Rutledge said. “They have technological desires and they have philanthropic desires. On the technological side, they want a place where they can come in and do something more sophisticated than possibly the world has ever seen as far as broadband Internet. They want a place to come in and test, modify and tweak a system and be able to do so in an easy way. This requires an existing infrastructure and it requires cooperation from the citizens and the city. Some places will be easier than others to get easements to do that, so they’ll investigate it.

“Philanthropically, they say one of their goals is to provide (high-speed broadband Internet) to the underserved. One example they give is a rural medical clinic videoconferencing and sharing images with a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, or something along those lines. Oxford has the technological foundation with the city and the university with its massive computer infrastructure to do that.

“And in Mississippi, we’re the perfect hub to expand into underserved areas. It’s a two-fold offer. We give them the technology and the support they need from a modern city but we also give them the ability to go to places that have struggled with Internet access, especially broadband service.”

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About Clay Chandler