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Why everyone wants Google's high-speed Internet access

Some 1,100 communities are vying for a network that delivers high-speed Internet access, courtesy of Google – though most aren't sure exactly what benefits it will deliver.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer / April 5, 2010

As an enticement to Google, the city renamed one of its streets. The change will be permanent if Google selects Bay City, Michigan.

Michael Randolph/Bay City Times/AP

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San Francisco

Wooing Google became something of a national pastime after the Internet search giant said in February it would build an experimental, superfast broadband network somewhere in America.

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In Duluth, Minn., the mayor leapt into Lake Superior's icy waters to try to win Google's favor. The mayor of Sarasota, Fla., swam with sharks. In Topeka, Kan., officials changed the city's name to Google for the month of March. Cities held rallies, started Facebook campaigns, and created online odes to Google to boost their chances of becoming the test bed for a fiber-optics network and, perhaps, the most wired place in the world.

More than 1,100 US communities applied to become Google's guinea pig. In coming months, Google says it will weigh the merits of each bid, visit applicant cities, and consider logistics. By year's end, it will decide on a location (or locations) to launch its project, which promises to deliver the Internet to as many as 500,000 people at speeds 100 times faster than the average connection.

All the excitement around Google's fiber-optics experiment speaks to the appetite for faster broadband as Americans come to rely on the Internet as their primary source of communication and entertainment.

"Our goal is to experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone," said Minnie Ingersoll, product manager on Google's alternative access team, in an e-mail. "We want to see what developers and consumers can do with ultrahigh speeds, like creating new bandwidth-intensive 'killer apps' and services, or other uses we can't yet imagine."

Google's 1-gigabit-per-second (Gbps) network promises to raise the bar for the future of broadband. For US consumers, whose average download speeds hover at about 5 megabits per second (Mbps), the switch would be like trading in a jalopy for a jet and allow for near-instant access to full-length movies and games. But the real benefactors, experts say, would be universities, hospitals, and businesses that could start using data-heavy applications via the Internet at lightning speeds.

"It's going to have tremendous benefits in terms of showing what can be done," says Lauren Weinstein, cofounder of People for Internet Responsibility (PFIR). "Right now it isn't obvious to everyone what you do with a gigabit pipe. Some of the more important aspects of this will be how institutions, such as hospitals, will use this."

In recent years, America has lagged behind other countries in investments in faster broadband. South Korea, considered the world's most-wired country, wants to boost its connections to 1 Gbps within five years. Australia intends to offer broadband at 100 Mbps within a decade, and Finland by 2016, according to a Brookings Institution report.

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