Last month, when Google announced plans to install a super-high-speed fiber-optic network in a small-to-medium-sized American city, politicians across the country scrambled for corporate largesse.
With $6.7 billion in annual revenues, Google has approximately 1,675 times the resources of the City of Santa Fe’s Information Technology & Telecommunications Division. Nonetheless, Santa Fe’s efforts to Googleize pale in comparison to communities elsewhere.
Topeka, Kan., temporarily renamed itself Google, Kan. The mayor of Duluth, Minn., plunged into icy Lake Superior, emerging from the frigid waters to declare, “All right, you other mayors: You want Google Fiber, you jump in Lake Superior!”
In New Mexico, Farmington Mayor Bill Standley quickly appointed a five-member task force to coordinate the city’s application to Google, and staged a contest with two $500 prizes for the most creative nomination video.
A Facebook page set up to cheer on Farmington’s application has 444 fans, as of March 15. And last week, US Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, sent a supportive letter to Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt:
“I believe Farmington is a perfect place for a trial fiber optic network,” Udall wrote. “Farmington owns its electric utility and already has dark fiber and other infrastructure that could be used to support the Google Fiber for Communities project.”
Meanwhile, in Santa Fe, City Councilors delayed revisions to a local telecommunications ordinance that would’ve allowed for the expansion of broadband networks, as a small but vocal group of technophobes bombarded City Hall with misinformation about the dangers of wireless technology.
The “Google Fiber for Santa Fe!” Facebook group has 171 fewer fans than its Farmington counterpart. Scott White, a “jack of all trades” IT wizard for the local nonprofit Bioneers, founded the Santa Fe group and a website out of frustration.
One of White’s clients, the Chainbreaker Collective on Fifth Street, suffers from grindingly slow connection speeds and outages with its Qwest internet service—an experience he says is extremely common in the Hopewell neighborhood and elsewhere in the city.
“There are children growing up back there without access to the internet,” White tells SFR. “It seems like City Hall is dragging their feet on the issue.”
Santa Fe Information Technology Division Director Thomas Williams tells SFR that City Manager Robert Romero and Mayor David Coss asked him to prepare a Google Fiber application, which he says he’ll submit before the March 26 deadline.
New Mexico consistently ranks toward the bottom in surveys of internet access and connection speeds. The Google Fiber network would operate at one gigabyte per second, or at least 100 times as fast as existing broadband connections. Such high speeds would be possible because Google is proposing a “fiber to the home” network, as opposed to existing Qwest and Comcast networks, which rely on old-fashioned copper wire for the so-called “last mile” connections to actual homes and businesses.
“Comcast is more interested in raising their prices than in offering fiber to the home,” Christopher Mitchell, a researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minn., tells SFR. “This kind of a network will be of tremendous benefit to the few communities that get it.”
Mitchell estimates that Google’s investment in whatever city it chooses could run up to $100 million—many times New Mexico’s share of recent federal broadband grants. (Relatedly, this week the Federal Communications Commission announced its 10-year plan to expand high-speed internet access countrywide).
But rather than wait on the federal government or on megacorporations, Mitchell believes communities should invest in publicly owned broadband. One such network, in Brigham City, Utah, is funded through a
voluntary tax assessment on property owners.
White of Bioneers tells SFR that it’s his “personal dream” for Santa Fe to develop a cooperatively owned internet service provider that offers high-speed broadband with sliding-scale fees, in order to expand in poorer parts of town while keeping users’ money local.
“It may be our best shot, honestly, if we can’t get Google Fiber,” White says.
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