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It would have been easy to mistake the thousands of people assembled in Greenville clutching their colored glow sticks and chanting the name of an all-knowing entity for worshippers at some sort of kooky New Age outdoor revival. But it wasn’t God who inspired this crowd of 2,200 to gather on a recent Saturday night. It was Google — and the chance that this South Carolina city might be able to coax down the manna of super-high-speed Internet from tech-giant heaven. (See 10 tech trends for 2010.)
Since Google unveiled plans in February to build — for free — an ultra-fast fiber-optic network in one or more U.S. cities, local officials across the land have been engaged in quirky battles of one-upmanship to get their hometown chosen as a demo site. Topeka, Kans., renamed itself Google for the month of March. The mayor of Sarasota, Fla., went swimming in a shark tank as a publicity stunt. And Greenville organized a “We Are Feeling Lucky” campaign — a play on Google’s second most famous search button — with enough glow sticks to form a massive Google logo in a downtown park. (See historical photos on Google Earth.)
How much speed does it take to inspire such fervor? The broadband network that Google is offering may cost as much as $1 billion to build and will be able to transmit 1 gigabit per second. That’s fast enough to download a feature-length DVD movie in about 70 seconds — and more than 100 times as fast as the typical connection available in the U.S., which ranks 22nd in the world in network speed, according to Akamai, an Internet-analytics firm. The Google guys are doing this to help spur the U.S. to overtake Romania and other we-can’t-believe-we’re-slower-than-they-are countries.
Greenville’s geek-savvy campaign was a fast operation too; it came together in less than 14 days. Highlights included a YouTube channel and a cartoon with instructions on how to participate in the glow-stick event (plus a tout for the town as the birthplace of a co-inventor of the laser, which gave rise to fiber optics). “We’re a city in the midst of reinventing itself as a tech community, and we think Google Fiber could really help,” says Aaron von Frank, the baby-faced 31-year-old tech developer who spearheaded the effort to get Google’s attention as local officials completed the documentation necessary to keep the city in the running. (See the story of Google’s doodles.)
Competition is stiff: as of March 26, the deadline for cities to submit information, Google said it had received more than 1,100 applications. It will analyze each city’s demographics and infrastructure before deciding on one or more locations by the end of the year. “One of the top things we’re looking for is to develop the network as quickly and efficiently as possible,” spokesman Dan Martin says. “We’re not looking for special treatment, but we do want to find a community that wants to work with us.”
If efficiency is Google’s main criterion, von Frank says he likes Greenville’s chances. “It’s a tight-knit community that comes together to get things done,” he says. In short order, thousands of people formed a Google chain. Now Greenville has to wait to see whether faster connections will follow.
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