DULUTH, Minn. -- Wearing just a T-shirt and shorts, Mayor Don Ness strolled to the end of a dock jutting into frigid Lake Superior. He grinned, waved his arms to a cheering crowd, and jumped in.
"I've laid down the gauntlet!" Ness cried, shivering and dripping as he emerged from the lake in a video posted on YouTube. "All right, you other mayors! You want Google Fiber, you jump in Lake Superior!"
They may not be taking a lake plunge, but city leaders around the country are competing hard for Google's experimental fiber-optic network, which promises to be more than 100 times faster than the Internet connections currently available to most Americans.
Topeka, Kan., informally renamed itself "Google, Kansas," for the month of March. A group in Baltimore launched a Web site that uses Google mapping to plot the location of more than 1,000 residents and gives their reasons for wanting the service. Other cities in pursuit include Cincinnati, Portland, Ore., Grand Rapids, Mich., Rochester, N.Y., Baton Rouge, La. More than 200 groups on Facebook are pushing different cities and counties for Google's broadband plan.
In Peoria, city and county leaders this week encouraged local residents to log onto a Web site to send Google a message. The site is www.GooglePlaysInPeoria.com. Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis said the old "Will it play in Peoria" line might give the town an built-in edge.
"People are hungry for faster speeds and improved Internet access," Google spokesman Dan Martin said.
Google said several thousand citizens have nominated their communities since it announced plans in mid-February to build the network in a handful of areas. The company has set a March 26 deadline for city governments and citizens to express interest, and Google plans to announce winners by the end of the year. Martin said Google can't say when it will start building the new networks but hopes to start soon.
Google's experimental fiber-optic networks would deliver data at 1 gigabit per second to homes and businesses. That would be roughly 50 to 300 times faster than the DSL, cable and fiber-optic networks that connect most U.S. homes to the Internet today. Google has not said how many cities it intends to serve, or how much it is willing to spend to do it.
Google says it's not interested in dominating or even grabbing a sizable chunk of the broadband market. Instead it says it hopes phone and cable companies will learn lessons from the experimental network that will help them hurry the rollout of their own faster systems. It also hopes to provide a testbed for online video and other advanced applications that require a lot of bandwidth.
"Google makes more money the more eyeballs are online," said Sascha Meinrath, director of the nonpartisan New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative.
Community support and readiness
In choosing sites, Google is looking for wide community support and readiness, said Meinrath, who has been talking with the company about the project. Google doesn't want to spend time dealing with right-of-way issues or objections from neighborhoods that aren't crazy about having Google tear up streets to install its network. In 2007 Google abandoned a much simpler plan, to offer Wi-Fi in San Francisco, after getting bogged down in the municipal bureaucracy.
"They want a fast, easy rollout," he said. "They are really looking for a community that is fully bought into this."
That's certainly the case in Duluth.
Shortly after Google's announcement, Ness gathered business and technology leaders to discuss the project. The city quickly teamed with neighboring Superior, Wis., and started lining up business support, money and volunteers to help the effort.
They built a testimonial-laden Web site - http://www.googletwinports.com - that includes sections for people to pledge to subscribe as soon as the network is available or to show their interest in working for a "fiber-based business."
It also includes several videos, including a spoof news conference responding to Topeka's gigabit gambit. In it, a phony Duluth mayor proclaims that "in order to prevail in the Google pandering arms race," every first-born child would be named "Google Fiber" or "Google-ette Fiber."
The campaign's Facebook page is nearing 10,000 members, and the city and its volunteers are producing a 10-minute YouTube video, to be aired at a rally, about why Google should pick Duluth.
Ness says the fast broadband would be a boon for Duluth's universities and hospitals that for now only have "decent" broadband coverage from local companies. The upgrade, he says, could take the city of 85,000 people to "the next level" and be a magnet for employers in a city where unemployment is 7 percent, a shade better than the state's 7.4 percent.
Mat Johnson, chief executive of GeaCom Inc., a medical technology company in Duluth, said ultrafast broadband would help his company grow.
GeaCom makes communications tools for doctors and patients facing a language barrier, and the market is global. But Duluth's broadband infrastructure isn't fast enough, so GeaCom's customers are routed through servers in Texas and Wisconsin, where access is faster, Johnson said.
"People are shocked and always ask, `Why are you in Duluth?'" Johnson said. "The truth is, it's hard to stay based here."
With faster broadband, Johnson said, the company could put a call center in Duluth that could stream live video from around the world, enabling agents to better help customers.
Google's initial goal is to deliver ultrafast Internet access to 500,000 Americans. The vast majority of the country would still trail the faster and cheaper Internet access available in many other countries, including Japan and Korea, broadband advocacy groups claim.
The Obama administration and Congress have vowed to improve that. This month the Federal Communications Commission will deliver policy recommendations to Congress on how to make universal broadband a reality. And the Commerce and Agriculture departments are handing out $7.2 billion in stimulus funding to bring high-speed access to more corners of the country.
Meanwhile, the big phone and cable companies that provide most U.S. broadband connections are investing billions to upgrade their networks. Verizon Communications Inc. is developing a super-fast fiber-optic network, called FiOS, that offers speeds of up to 50 megabits per second. It also has run a field test with speeds of up to 10 gigabits -- 10 times faster than Google is proposing.
"I would love to see a broadband arms race come out of this," Meinrath said.