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Evanston pushes to bring Google's ultrafast Internet to city

by Tanveer Ali
Feb 24, 2010


Tanveer Ali/MEDILL

Google's presence in the Chicago area includes an office at 20 W. Kinzie, where operations include sales and engineering.

 Evanston is preparing its bid to bring Google Inc.’s ultrafast Internet within city limits.  The service would give residents online access 100 times faster than most available broadband.

After Google announced its plans to experiment with a fiber-optics network intended to cover a handful of communities nationwide, with anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 people, Evanston residents contacted city officials to apply for the service.

The city convened a task force, drawing dozens of participants to its first meeting Tuesday, in search of input on how best to market the city for the project before the March 26 application deadline. Task force members said YouTube videos and community outreach will be key to enticing Google to invest in the well-wired city looking to expand Internet options for its residents and businesses.

“Until you have (Internet speed), you don't understand the power,” said Evanston resident Mary Alice Ball at the community meeting. “It's not just YouTube videos. Are you doing simulations? Can you do telemedicine? It takes you to a whole different scale."

While consumers would be able to experience digital media more effectively, “what's more important is that there are many businesses that require broadband capacity,” said Joe Mambretti, director of Northwestern University’s International Center for Advanced Internet Research.

“Evanston is already a well-wired community. What this will enable Evanston to do is experience bandwidth far in excess of what they have now,” Mambretti said.

That means more bandwidth for technology, health and other research firms, all of which have a presence in the city. Other uses may include setting up wireless networks in areas of Evanston where residents currently don’t use broadband access.

Dan Martin, spokesman for Mountain View, Calif. –based Google said in an e-mail that the company will choose  communities on a variety of factors, particularly those that would “impact the efficiency and speed of our deployment.” Community support, weather conditions, approved construction methods, and local resources and regulatory issues will all come into play, he said. Communities are expected to be chosen this year.

“Above all, we're interested in deploying our network efficiently and quickly and are hoping to identify interested community partners that will work with us to achieve this goal,” Google spokesman Martin said.

So far, Google says it has received dozens of submissions from communities and thousands of nominations from individuals.

Evanston expects competition from perhaps a thousand other communities applying for the Google broadband service. Though the numbers may be daunting, Evanston may have a leg up, being home to a major research institution like Northwestern, which already has a network with speeds approaching 100 megabits per second and, in some parts of campus, reaching into gigabits per second.

“We're still in the early days,” said Wendy Woodward, Northwestern’s director of technology support services. “We are happy to collaborate with the city."

The Google project comes while many communities are trying to get a piece of the $7.2 billion set aside for broadband development in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Though that  money targets mostly rural areas, Chicago and other Illinois cities have applied for grants and loans. Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the city may apply for those funds as well.

"Whatever we could do to keep our costs down is going to make us more attractive," Bobkiewicz said.

Bobkiewicz said Evanston might fit Google’s mold for the project.

"I think the questions they have asked … indicate to me that part of the metrics they will run is where can they do this as easily, as quickly and as less expensively as they can,” Bobkiewicz said. “The culture here is kind of an all-of-the-above.”