Tom Loveland, CEO of Mind Over Machines, and the city's… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
Two months ago, city officials and business leaders were giddy with the notion that Baltimore maybe — just maybe — could lure Google Inc. to build a next-generation fiber-optic network for blazing-fast Internet service.
On Wednesday, a larger group of city boosters wrestled with a more sobering possibility: What if Google doesn't choose Baltimore? More than 1,100 communities across the United States are vying for Google's Fiber for Communities pilot project. And Google isn't expected to announce a winner until the end of the year.
That's why Baltimore Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake wants to explore how to expand high-speed fiber-optic Internet service to city residents with or without Google's help. The mayor has launched a panel that would consider other options as Baltimore lags other cities in terms of access to faster broadband Internet service.
One option that has been tried in at least one other U.S. city would be to build a fiber-optic network that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and would be financed through revenue bonds sold on Wall Street.
"We can't sit here and wait for a gift from Google to fall on us from the sky," said Tom Loveland, whom Rawlings-Blake has appointed the city's volunteer Google czar. "This is our future we're talking about here. Those of us involved in the conversation have seen what other cities have already accomplished. These folks managed to get themselves wired without Google. If they can do it, we can do it, too."
Loveland spoke to a crowd of about 200 people at a symposium about the city's fiber-optic efforts at the University of Baltimore on Wednesday. Loveland said organizers notified Google of the event to signal how serious the city is about somehow building a new network for residents.
Google officials could not be reached for comment.
Rawlings-Blake submitted an electronic application to Google from her office in City Hall in late March.
Loveland and Donald C. Fry, chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee, will lead the mayor's exploratory panel to assess Baltimore's fiber-optic future. The panel, which does not yet have other members, would likely start making recommendations by the end of the year.
"Even if Google doesn't come here, what are the assets that we have here?" Fry said. "We have to look around for best practices."
The idea of vastly upgrading the nation's Internet infrastructure appears to have taken hold this year in many communities across the country and in the nation's capital, spurred in part by Google's Fiber for Communities competition.
The Federal Communications Commission has promoted its own national broadband plan, which aims to improve Internet access for millions as an economic and social imperative over the next 10 years. One way the FCC would improve access is to expand the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes telephone service for low-income and rural residents, to include Internet service.
Google, the Internet search giant, wants to build a fiber-optic network offering download speeds of one gigabit per second — about a thousand times faster than an average digital subscriber line, or DSL, connection. The pilot project could be rolled out in more than one community, Google has said.
At the symposium, Loveland introduced the mayor of Lafayette, La., and the former mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., who spoke about their experiences getting advanced fiber-optic networks built in their communities.
Speaking through a live video conference feed, Joey Durel of Lafayette said his city of 125,000 people — about one-fifth the size of Baltimore — opted to build its own broadband network after private companies balked at leading the effort because they feared it wouldn't generate enough revenue. He equated it to a similar fight, more than 100 years ago, to bring electricity to the area.
In 2007, Lafayette won a lawsuit filed by telecommunications providers who tried to stop the municipality from building its own network. To finance the project, which is costing about $120 million, Durel said Lafayette sold revenue bonds to raise money and charges residents a monthly fee depending on the level of service they select for telephone, Internet and television programming.
The city has been offering fiber-optic service to residents for the past 18 months. Residents, on average, are saving at least 20 percent a month on their monthly broadband bills, he said.
"If there really is such a thing as a digital divide in America, it doesn't exist in Lafayette," Durel said. "We feel like we've created opportunity and economic development."
Graham Richard, former mayor of Fort Wayne, also spoke by live video feed and explained to the crowd how his city mobilized to persuade Verizon to launch its new FiOS fiber-optic network in their community. (Verizon has launched FiOS in counties around Baltimore, but not in the city itself; the company has put on hold its FiOS expansion plans nationwide.)