This Week in the Mercury


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Portland Makes Google Fiber Shortlist!!!

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Feb 19, 2014 at 11:59 AM

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It's by no means a done deal, but the mayors of several neighboring cities joined Mayor Charlie Hales in city hall today for a majorly hopeful announcement: Portland is one of nine metro areas (including 34 cities) in the running for a whiplash-fast Google Fiber broadband network.

Getting Google Fiber has been a city hall white whale for the past few years—the company's first foray into municipal broadband skipped over Portland and built in places like Provo, Utah, and Kansas City (both!). Portland even brewed a special beer to woo Google the last time it tried getting into the dance. Google's less interested in panache this time.

"We've got cool covered," Hales joked.

The company, instead, is looking for logistical details from the cities it's set up as suitors: Can it tap into existing fiber networks? Will a city's leadership help smooth the permit process? Will streets need to be torn up? How many? It hopes to have that information by May 1, with a decision at the end of the year on which cities will get the nod.

Hales has pledged to convene a series of regional meetings to that effect. And political consultant Mark Wiener has been lending his expertise to the effort. He was at the presser in city hall this morning and said he provided light background on Portland's nationally unique political system, in which city commissioners also lead city bureaus. Unlike other cities, Portland doesn't have a strong mayor who could make decisions and push staffers into whatever positions are needed.

Those challenges aside, I don't think I can recall seeing so much optimism after a city hall press event. People were beaming and shaking hands. Google's gigabit fiber network is 100 times faster than typical American broadband speeds—and cheaper. Bringing it to Portland will put pressure on current providers, like monopolist Comcast, to do more without gouging consumers.

But the cost of installation could be a major factor here or anywhere else. Google is putting cities through these paces so it can essentially study up—for free—the kinds of challenges underlying the expansion of a service that could become another profit center for the company. Cost estimates will flow from what the cities are able to tell Google about their infrastructure. Hales says he thinks he can work on permitting, for example, without having to hire extra staff. Permits are going to be very important, a Google rep said at the presser, saying the company wants to avoid "permit shock."

A FAQ on Google's website for its Fiber service lays that balancing act out.

There are also some physical characteristics of a city that might make it really complex for us to build Google Fiber. For example, underground construction might be really difficult due to bedrock or unusually hard soil. In these situations, we would share what we learned in our studies with city leaders and we hope they’d be able to use that information to explore other options for bringing super high speed broadband to their residents.

Hales and the city have decided that full-throated pursuit is worth the chance for heartbreak. With the region cultivating a reputation as a high-tech/information economy hub, he says having cheap, brilliant broadband connections before most other cities around the country can boast the same would be a boon for attracting and retaining businesses.

"It's a way to put Portland into the leadership of the new economy," Hales says.

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