City could gain jobs, Web stature on Google's dime

Superfast broadband would aid medical elite, low-income residents

February 24, 2010|By Jay Hancock

Here's an economic development contest Baltimore can win.

The headquarters of defense contractor Northrop Grumman is unlikely to relocate to Pratt Street or anywhere else in Maryland. But there is every reason to believe Baltimore can persuade Google to spend tens of millions of dollars to give homes, schools, companies and hospitals what would be among the fastest Internet connections in the world.

Google announced the project on its blog two weeks ago - a plan to build "ultra high-speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations across the United States."

It wants to promote the next wave of Internet development, hone its reputation as an envelope-pusher and presumably shame broadband providers into improving their offerings.

The company would install optical fiber carrying a gigabit of data per second to the doorsteps of at least 50,000 homes and businesses, moving movies, radiology images and engineering data a hundred times faster than what broadband typically allows.

Getting a piece of the project would be a publicity coup for Baltimore, a jobs generator and a jolt for local Internet development.

Here's why the city can get this deal:

•We're near Washington. As a likely target for antitrust regulators and an advocate of equal Web access, Google knows it needs more influence and visibility in the nation's capital.

It was no accident that on the day before Google announced the broadband idea, CEO Eric Schmidt had an op-ed column on innovation in The Washington Post.

A broadband demonstration in Baltimore would be close enough to show off Google's civic-mindedness and devotion to Web neutrality without the favor-currying implied by a project in the District.

•Baltimore can fill up the bandwidth. Google needs customers who can take advantage of awesomely faster Internet. One is Johns Hopkins Medicine. Another is the University of Maryland Medical Center.

"Three-dimensional medical imaging over the Web" was the first potential application Google executives mentioned when they announced the project.

Maryland is already ahead of the country in adopting electronic health records. With access to Google's fiber, these top hospitals could set the international standard for medical information management for decades to come.

•Google can stick it to Verizon. Google and Verizon are on opposite sides of the debate over 'Net neutrality, which is about whether to give some content providers privileged, fast lanes on the info expressway. Google is opposed, and it has promised open access to its broadband project to reinforce the point.

What better way for Google to tweak Verizon than by bringing fabulous Internet service to Baltimore, which still doesn't have Verizon's FiOS broadband service even though surrounding counties do?

"Verizon is not deploying FiOS in Baltimore City" right now because it's focusing on finishing its networks in other jurisdictions, company spokeswoman Sandra Arnette said Tuesday.

•Good can be accomplished. Presumably the company whose motto is "Don't Be Evil" also wants to deliver great broadband to disadvantaged populations, of which there is a large one in Baltimore. While wiring Hopkins and other sophisticated customers, Google could give households and schools in nearby, low-income neighborhoods the same quantum upgrade.

Get Baltimore schools chief Andrés Alonso on board along with the Open Society Institute, which works to improve conditions in poor Baltimore neighborhoods. OSI founder George Soros and Google's Schmidt saw each other at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a few weeks ago.

•Baltimore's tech community has the size and sophistication to lobby for the project, while at the same time it's no Austin or Palo Alto, which Google might avoid because they're too obvious.

As reported by The Baltimore Sun's BaltTech blog on Monday, an informal discussion last week among local tech execs has already turned into a concerted campaign to get the Google fiber.

"I can't believe how fast it's blown up," says Robert D. Wray, founder of MP3Car and one of the people behind the effort. "This morning I had 120 messages in my in box" about Google broadband.

There's already a Web site, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed and so forth.

"We view the Google high-speed Internet opportunity as one that would further distinguish Baltimore City from its competition," says Andrew B. Frank, deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development.

Gigabit broadband would create jobs to lay the fiber, to promote and sell the service and, most importantly, to develop as-yet inconceivable applications that would run on it.

If Baltimore can use Google's money to show the world how the Internet will work in 2030, it ought to devote all the organizational bandwidth it can muster to make it happen.

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