The city of Bloomington is one of more than 1,200 communities nationwide to apply for a competition run by internet giant Google which could net the city millions of dollars in high-speed internet infrastructure. City leaders elected not to employ gimmicks like some of their competitors, but instead to try to sell the city as a growing hub of internet activity.
The city or cities which win out in Google’s Gigabit Project will be seeded with in-ground internet cables which promise citizens connection speeds hundreds of times faster than current broadband connections. The economic development prospects that creates led to some intriguing applications. Topeka, Kansas elected to informally rename itself Google, Kansas for a short time — leading to Google declaring on April 1 it had renamed itself Topeka. Bloomington city leaders, though, crafted a more straightforward bid, all but devoid of creative angling.
“It just didn’t seem like an option that would really help us,” said Rick Dietz, head of the city’s information technology services department, who helped craft the bid.
Dietz said the online form Google created for cities to submit applications was very open-ended, allowing cities to choose their own path in just a couple thousand words. But the form primarily asked how cities would make meaningful use of the broadband fiber and asked applicants to spend a couple paragraphs explaining any other reasons why one city should be part of Google’s prospective nationwide beta-test of the project versus another. So little space was provided, Dietz said, that wasting time on frivolities was not an option he considered.
“Although those attempts were amusing, I’m not sure how much they’re going to count for in the long run,” he said. “Part of me had thought that as soon as everybody had submitted their forms, there would be some sort of massive algorithm that Google had developed that instantly churned out who was the victor and so everybody would know immediately afterward. Obviously Google hasn’t yet achieved omnipotence.”
It is not clear exactly what Google wants — or what it will do with the information it gathered from the 1,200 applicants. WFIU tried to reach Google’s public relations firm to ask that very question, but could not reach a spokesperson for comment. So, absent much direction, Dietz focused on two main factors — the presence of Indiana University and the city’s connection to what’s called “eHealth,” or a move to integrate the information technology and medical fields. So Dietz called Todd Rowland, the executive director of HealthLINC, a Bloomington-based firm which connects hospitals through the use of electronic medical records. Rowland said the Google grant could change the geography of innovation — in other words enabling change in Bloomington which otherwise might happen half a world away.
“If you look at some of the Asian countries, those young people are experiencing super-high speed networks and they’re figuring out to innovate — how to do the latest internet application, whether it be health care or something else,” Rowland said. “And we’re losing the opportunity for ourselves. Not only does it affect us today, but it affects us tomorrow, because it’s going to have a negative impact on our innovation.
Once the eHealth community was on board, Dietz attempted to leverage Indiana University to the advantage of the city’s application with Google. He contacted the university’s vice president for networks, Dave Jent, who had an interesting suggestion for how to generate potentially groundbreaking ideas which the city could offer to Google if the company needs more information about why to choose Bloomington over Topeka or Crawfordsville or Anderson.
“And I said ‘You know what I would suggest Rick is to take out an ad in the newspaper and say the city of Bloomington is interested in your ideas. We’re interested in your ideas about what you would do with this.’ And soon you’ll discard all these ‘Well, I’ll get my e-mail faster,’ because nobody cares about that really. But you’ll get down to a set of really interesting ideas that I don’t know about,” said Jent.
But Jent also said grant applications by a number of Indiana communities put the school in a bit of a tough spot. Since IU has campuses all over Indiana and is expected to serve the state as a whole, Jent said IU had to align itself with a single city without appearing to play favorites. What that means, he said, is that investment in a number of Indiana cities represents a win for the university, even though Bloomington is IU’s clear first choice.
“Where there are university campuses, since the university is a statewide entity, we were not focusing on a single city,” Jent said. “We hope Bloomington wins, but if they don’t, I hope Indianapolis and if they don’t, I hope South Bend wins.”
Google has not said how much money it will pour into the project or how many cities — if any at all — will be the recipients of the high-speed cable. Both Dietz and Jent say they think suspicion the application process is little more than a publicity grab for the multi-billion dollar company are unfounded, because Google would reap additional benefit with each city it brings into the ultra-high-speed internet fold. Bloomington leaders rejected changing the city’s name but say that even in this already-wired community, additional internet capacity could change the landscape.