March 16, 2010

Portland vies to be Google's 'fiber city'

The Web giant is choosing at least one test site to run super-fast fiber-optic cable to every residence.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Ready to send video messages in an instant? Download an entire feature film in seconds? Play "Avatar" in streaming high-definition video on your laptop?

JOIN THE CAMPAIGN

Portland officials want to demonstrate community support for its Google application and are urging people to send e-mails to the city's economic development director, Greg Mitchell, at gmitchell@portlandmaine.gov.

If you live in Portland, you now have permission to dream big.

Google plans to choose at least one U.S. city and run fiber-optic cables to every dwelling, providing Internet speeds that would be 100 times faster than broadband.

Google is searching for cities with populations of 50,000 to 500,000 for its Google Fiber initiative. More than 100 have expressed interest.

And yes, Portland is submitting an application.

Several cities are making public appeals for Google's attention.

The mayor of Duluth, Minn., leaped into Lake Superior on a freezing winter day. The mayor of Wilmington, Del., announced plans to jump out of a plane. City officials in Topeka, Kan., renamed their city "Google" for the month of March. In Huntsville, Ala., residents created a Facebook page, Google Fiber for Huntsville, with more than 6,200 fans.

Portland, on the other hand, is taking the stealth approach -- city officials are focused on writing a strong application and delivering it to Google before the March 26 deadline.

The pitch: Portland is a miniature version of a big city -- an economically diverse hub with a dense downtown populated by youthful, tech-savvy and creative people.

Moreover, the city has experience when it comes to field-testing new technology. In 1997, Time Warner Cable launched the nation's fourth Road Runner high-speed Internet service in Portland. In 2003, it launched the nation's first digital phone system here.

City Councilor John Anton, who encouraged the city to apply for the Google network, said he expects substance to prevail over publicity gimmicks.

"I really hope Google is making a decision based on the merits of the application and not whether people are jumping into bodies of water," he said.

Portland officials nevertheless want to demonstrate community support and are urging people to send e-mails to the city's economic development director, Greg Mitchell, at gmitchell@portlandmaine.gov.

Joshua Broder, president of Tilson Fiber Technology LLC, a Portland-based telecommunications consulting company, is helping the city fill out the application.

Broder said consumers in the future will need super-high-speed Internet for applications that have yet to be invented.

Several Portland businesses already have high-speed fiber-optic service, which allows users to transmit large volumes of data quickly. But the service is not available in homes.

Verizon offers high-speed fiber-optic connections to homes in several states, including Massachusetts, although the speeds are significantly slower than what Google is planning.

Time Warner provides an advanced fiber-optic network to commercial customers in Portland and many other parts of the state. It offers a hybrid version for residential customers.

Broder said Google is frustrated that telephone and cable companies have been slow to invest in fiber optics -- its long-term plans call for building fiber-optic networks and leasing the lines to service providers already doing business in the communities.

"This is like a trucking company that has really fast trucks but the road stinks," Broder said, "so they company says, 'We're going to build some roads.'"

He estimates that it would cost more than $40 million to install fiber-optic cables to every home in Portland. The cables would run on telephone poles.

Google also allows non-governmental groups to nominate communities for the project. TechMaine, a Westbrook-based technology trade association, has submitted an application for southern Maine.

TechMaine's executive director, Joe Kumiszcza, said his group can link Google with application developers in the region who can create products that can take advantage of a super-high-speed network.

Google is launching this initiative to showcase the transformation that occurs in a community when super-high-speed Internet access becomes ubiquitous, Kumiszcza said.

Broder said the high speeds would allow a full-length movie to be downloaded in less than a minute. The fiber-optic cables can transmit one gigabit of data per second, many times faster than any other residential service in the nation.

"It's pretty extraordinary," Broder said. "Everything is instantaneous."

If Google chooses Portland, Broder said, it can eventually broaden the fiber-optic service to other communities by building on the infrastructure to be established by the state's Three Ring Binder initiative.

That project will create three fiber-optic service rings, one in northern Maine, one from midcoast to Down East and one in western Maine.

The rings will be a shared resource open to all qualified Internet providers.

The project has received $25.4 million in federal stimulus money and $7 million in private equity.

Maine Fiber Co. will oversee the construction, maintenance and leasing of the Three Ring network.

Robert C.S. Monks, a lead investor in the company, is a board member of MaineToday Media Inc., which owns the Portland Press Herald. Broder works as a consultant for the company.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@pressherald.com

 

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