Jared Starkey is going all out for Google broadband. The day after Google (GOOG) said it would provide high-speed Internet access to as many as 500,000 people around the U.S., Starkey set up a Facebook page to lobby Google to bring the service to his hometown, Topeka, Kan. Since then, Starkey has passed out bright-orange necklaces made of the kind of fiber-optic cable used to deliver fast Web connections and rallied 100 people to show up at a downtown redevelopment meeting wearing T-shirts that play on Google's motto for the broadband plan. "I've been talking to absolutely everybody about this," says Starkey, owner of a small Web-design company.
Broadband-starved cities and towns across the country are going to great lengths to grab the attention of Mountain View (Calif.)-based Google, which in February said it will set up a network that can deliver speeds of 1 gigabit per second, about 20 times faster than the speediest ones sold by Verizon Communications (VZ). Google will spend "hundreds of millions" on the effort, Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, said in a recent interview with Bloomberg News.
To set themselves apart, some municipal officials are naming cities after Google, owner of the world's largest Web search engine. The city of Greensboro, N.C., is preparing an "Operation Google" gift package for delivery to Google headquarters and has earmarked $50,000 for promoting a Google broadband effort.
Yet with budgets strapped after the recent recession, many cities are relying on citizen-led grassroots efforts, often through social networks such as Facebook and the microblogging service Twitter. Activists have set up more than 70 Facebook pages to attract Google's attention to cities including Grand Rapids, Mich.; Columbia, Mo.; and Ventura, Calif. Starkey's "Bring Google's Fiber Experiment to Topeka!" page boasts more than 10,900 members.
Google may pay heed. "Level of community support is certainly one of the factors we're considering," says a Google spokesman who asked not to be identified. The company is accepting applications at its Web site through Mar. 26.
To drive the message home at Googleplex, some broadband boosters are using such Google tools as Google Docs, Google Maps, and Google Groups. In the coming days, Greensboro plans to launch a channel on Google-owned YouTube that will feature videos of residents saying why Google should come to their town, Assistant City Manager Denise Turner says. Greensboro's planned gift crate may include a hat and T-shirt from the Greensboro Grasshoppers baseball team; a model of a HondaJet manufactured at the nearby Honda Aircraft factory; and a replica statue of General Nathanael Greene, after whom the city is named, Turner says. The city may even temporarily rechristen itself Googlesboro "if Google were willing to come here and talk to us," she says.
Backers of broadband for Baltimore on Feb. 26 kicked off a mobile-phone text-messaging campaign. Almost 180 people have signed up to receive text alerts of coming events, which may include passing out flyers and going door to door to rally resident support. Small business owners created a Twitter profile, bmorefiber, which has more than 330 followers, and a Facebook page, "Bmore Fiber!" which has attracted more than 1,800 fans. "WE NEED FIBER!" a fan named Rashid Belt said in a Mar. 1 wall posting. "I've been here for 15 years, and I've never seen this kind of grassroots support come together so quickly," says Andrew Frank, a Baltimore deputy mayor.
By providing faster download speeds, Google's Internet access may help create jobs and business opportunities, local companies say. On Feb. 25, Topeka restaurant The Break Room, which sells panini and wraps, hosted a Google Fiber party and gave free dinner coupons to the first 20 people who filled out an online petition. "We are from here, born here, and want to see our home do as well as possible," says co-owner Chris Schultz.
Universities in Kirksville, Mo., are brainstorming telemedicine and learning applications they can run over Google's fiber-optic lines. David Troy, who owned an Internet service provider in Baltimore before selling it in 2004, says he might launch a broadband TV channel or a gaming network.
Some applicants are trying to make a more direct appeal. National Public Radio contributor and Baltimore activist Mario Armstrong says he will call on Google officials in nearby Washington the week of Mar. 8 to ensure he's interpreting the application correctly. Advocates in Lansing, Mich., urged East Lansing High School to lobby its famous alumnus, Google co-founder Larry Page. The school's principal, Paula Steele, couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
Back in Topeka, which for the month of March renamed itself "Google, Kansas," Starkey is ramping up efforts. He recently implored local acoustic guitar soloist Andy McKee to compose a Topeka Google Fiber song. "We haven't heard back yet," Starkey says. Undeterred, Starkey is already planning another overture.
With Brian Womack in San Francisco. Kharif is a reporter for Bloomberg BusinessWeek in Portland, Ore.
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