Going for Google Broadband Gold (one NC community’s approach)

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Google recently turned the broadband world on its ear by announcing it’s going to set up fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks for a handful of lucky communities that will deliver 1 gigabit per second speeds. Dozens of cities large and small are lining up to apply.

I wanted to get a perspective on what’s motivating communities that survived NOFA 1 to endure a different frenzied race for broadband gold. Hunter Goosmann, General Manager of ERC Broadband in Western North Carolina, recently received their Opportunity to Re-Apply letter from NTIA and RUS. ERC’s not only going for Google gold, but also a chance at Round 2 funding (sleep must not be a valued commodity in that part of the world).

1. What type of network did you propose in the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA 1), and what primary benefits were you hoping for from the project?

We use our network to support education, healthcare services, local governments and economic development, with the heaviest emphasis on education and governments. We proposed in NOFA 1 a six-county middle mile and last mile network.

The middle mile portion was primarily to connect the dots to expand the network we have, and the last mile project was to increase the presence of a ‘multi-community minded’ network. It would have provided 99% coverage in two counties in rural North Carolina. We wanted to add fiber and also partner with wired and wireless providers to expand and grow opportunities, as well as give a great proportion of the people an understanding – and the means – to maximize technology.

2. What is it about the Google RFI that attracted your community’s attention?

Some people around here may know about the broadband stimulus program, but a lot more people know Google. They may have G-mail accounts or use Google apps, so the RFI created a lot of buzz, especially when people consider gigabit speed. We still have areas with people on dial up.

If we look to provide fiber to the home, this builds lots of attention for Asheville and other communities in the region. Everything done in Asheville regarding technology has snowball effect in the region since it’s the largest city in western North Carolina. The city has a history of being strongly creative in education, music and now technology. Asheville has the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), which is part of NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], and Netriplex, an international data center.

Asheville has worked with Google on projects, such as their Juicy Ideas collegiate competition that challenged student teams to create value while communicating a message of environmental responsibility through the creative use of ‘throw-away’ item. The company, along with Apple and other technology companies, has an office in Western North Carolina. So it was easy to see us being attractive to Google.

3. What aspects of your community’s plans for broadband do you believe should entice Google?

Google’s RFI asks ‘how do we fill gaps in broadband availability.’ It has specific questions about existing providers, terrain, basic demographics and so on, similar to a site survey. But besides a municipal response they also ask for a community response through an RFI because they want to know how the broadband they offer or facilitate will be used. Everyone can say we need it, but the key is what are you going to do with it? Google wants to know what locals think about what they have to offer.

We understand data and search by virtue of the NCDC. We also understand value of applying science to data to create value-added tools. Take healthcare, for example. You have a health information exchange that connects physicians’ offices, clinics and hospitals so they can exchange text info. The next phase is to expand their capabilities with a new service for exchanging images such as x-rays. Or climate data is being collected. As this data helps people understand the influence of climate on industry, they discover ways to commercialize the science through new technology products.

By understanding science, we’re laying the groundwork for the next generation of commercial projects. All of these efforts to collect and assess data, as well as facilitate the development of these new products and services, would be impacted with the higher speeds Google is offering. A significant focus of Google’s RFI is on identifying communities that are supportive of everyone’s growth and development. They want to see examples of those constituent groups working together that define a committed community infrastructure. To Google, broadband technology then becomes the underlying driver for the infrastructure to create the next generation solutions to various community issues.

4. Are you making any significant changes to the NOFA proposal to get ready for your Google RFI?

In Round 1 we submitted an application along with multiple groups. We’re submitting a Round 2 application, but for this my part is changing. It’s going to be just a middle mile effort since that’s what ERC is already doing and we want too expand it. Our proposal to Google reflects the fact that last mile coverage would not be covered by NTIA’s NOFA, and through Google we can potentially expand the network within a large part of the County.

With the demographics restrictions of the NOFA, we couldn’t prove the entirety of need for the entire counties because of how data get reported at the census block level. Our message to Google is that there’s both a need here and an opportunity for Google to create a test bed to see how this broadband will be used, as I described in the previous answer.

5. Any tips for your fellow travelers making this NOFA 2 journey?

You have to request funds for projects that you feel are fundable, meaning credible projects that NTIA and RUS feel you are capable of executing. Then your response is going to be that much tighter. Everyone has a huge wish list, but you have to self-edit. Make sure it’s what you know with certainty you’re really able to achieve.

I don’t think proposals from the larger private sector groups alone can fully meet the needs of any communities. Their focus is ultimately not on community, but return on investment. By default, that means they’ll put in infrastructure that’s going to get them the most return. That’s really fair for the private sector, I want to be clear about that. But the communities that are going to benefit the most from these projects are ones in which there is direct nonprofit or local government involvement, either alone or in partnership with the private sector.

If you read my original post on the subject, you know my general feelings on the Google opportunity. My thoughts apply to Hunter’s statement as well.

You need to have a vision that makes sense, but also one that the entire community can buy into. ERC and other cities that have contacted me seem to be very amped up about Google and what it means. There’s a sense that, even if they don’t win the affections of Google, these communities feel they will have created a stronger plan, identified new partners and put themselves in a greater position to make their broadband dream real through other avenues.

Hunter also keys on the role of communities as the key player in the needs assessment process, and local governments along with local stakeholders who need to have direct involvement in the process. That differs somewhat from Tad Deriso in Virginia who I interviewed last week, who purposely avoided involving local governments, though his co-op aggressively targets the needs of other local stakeholders.

Personally, I’m a strong believer in local government involvement. However, Tad’s Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative compensates for their exclusion not only by heavy involvement of other local stakeholders, they also enforce an open network that encourages participation of many competitors. This competition, as Tad explained it to me, should ensure local needs are met and pricing is fair and affordable.

Earlier today my column on Daily Yonder looks in more detail at how rural communities in general should view Google’s RFI. In the run up to my presentation next week at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, I hope to look at Google’s RFI from an urban perspective.

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