Google Fiber and Greenville’s People-Powered Google Chain

It seems everyone is working themselves into Google Fiber frenzy. After the internet giant’s announcement in February that they plan to construct an experimental fiber optic infrastructure serving gigabit connections to as many as a half a million residents, candidate cities lined up by the hundreds. During the ensuing courtship, some communities went to extremes to show their adoration for Google. The town of Topeka, Kansas renamed itself Google for the month of March, and the mayor of Duluth, MN took an icy bath in Lake Superior to demonstrate his commitment to the project. So it was with some merriment that I discovered that my adopted hometown of Greenville, SC entered the media melee on March 20th by creating the largest “people-powered Google chain” in history out of hundreds of volunteers and a couple thousand eco-friendly glow sticks. Seeing this impressive display got me wondering, what is Google really looking for in a candidate, and do towns like Greenville have it?

Greenville’s Google Fiber campaign is appropriately named We Are Feeling Lucky. Like many applicants, Greenville’s outward appearance is as the ideal city for such an endeavor. Relatively unphased by the recent economic collapse, Greenville’s downtown is undergoing an urban renaissance that began in the mid-nineties. Tens of millions of dollars in renovation turned the Reedy River Park of fifteen years ago from a homeless encampment and drug bazaar into the Falls Park of the new millennium: a beautiful natural setting enriched by urban accents and rarely devoid of a wealth of family friendly interaction and leisure. A growing skyline meets a burgeoning arts community in the nook of the Reedy River alongside its picturesque waterfall. The southern end of Main Street intersects the historic West End to the north and west, and overlooking the park from the south is my alma mater, the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a small residential high school finely styled after a Tuscan villa. The scene as a whole is an urban planners fantasy, and was a befitting host to the people-powered Google chain.

Not only is Greenville an aesthetically pleasing place, it also boasts growth in cutting edge industry, with automotive and technology giants like BMW and IBM operating major installations. It has an international airport and is located at the juncture of two major interstates. Cheap land prices, lenient building regulations, and accessible terrain make the area prime for large-scale construction projects like fiber installation. Greenville really seems like a winner.

Then again, so do many other cities like Fresno, Greensboro, Portland, and Sarasota. Preliminary returns based on the number of nominations puts Duluth, MN on top, followed by Grand Rapids, MI. The closest Greenville gets to the list is its hippy cousin Asheville that lives in the mountains of North Carolina an hour to the north. That doesn’t exclude it from winning, but it gives a decent indication of the competition. I could wage a rational debate about why Greenville is at least comparable to any of these towns in one way or another, but it really asks the question, what does Google want from us anyway?

While they aren’t offering up much, Google has made clear certain preferences in their would-be fiber city. First, their aim is to service between 50,000 and 500,000 people. This obviously rules out the big and small. After that, their interests are less tangible. They list the following as decisive factors:

  • level of community support
  • local resources
  • weather conditions
  • approved construction methods
  • local regulatory issues
  • preexisting broadband availability/speed

That’s both a worthlessly general and oddly specific batch of preferences. Weather conditions? I didn’t know you could find at least 50,000 people living in sufficient density anywhere that weather conditions would be an obstacle. Regardless, Google isn’t exactly showing their hand.

So why does Greenville fall short of being the optimal pick for Google? I think there are two primary reasons. First, the practical reality is that Greenville suffers from a bad case of urban sprawl. The city population is around 60,000, but the county population is almost ten times that. The greater Greenville-Spartanburg metropolitan area is home to almost a million beating hearts. To service several hundred thousand people, Google would need to lay a lot more fiber in Greenville than in most places. The second major reason why Google will skirt Greenville is that they will find themselves at ideological ends with some of the more vocal constituents of the city. Given their recent dealings with censorship, I suspect Google will not take kindly to major institutions who may use their fiber investment to misconstrue, distort, or pervert the most fundamental tenants of science and history. Enabling that would certainly fall outside of their “Don’t Be Evil” business ethic. The institution of systemic miseducation of which I speak is none other than the infamous Bob Jones University. While I know and work with many an outstanding person who graduated from the place, it is itself a blight on the city’s cosmopolitan reputation. Even if BJU benefits not a bit (pun!) from Google Fiber, I would bet my little toe it’s heavily weighting the “con” side of Google’s hypothetical tally sheet for this city.

So it makes me sad to say that there are some good reasons why Google will likely not pick my humble town of residence. It also speaks to the dichotomy of the high standards held by US cities offset by the bandwidth starvation they are clamoring to overcome. While it was great to see my town reflected positively in national news for once, the people-powered Google chain was particularly special to me. Seeing as how I went to a residential arts school a stone’s throw away from the “e” during the techno-crazed dawn of the new millennium, seeing all of the time elapsed glow stick footage in the park brought me waaaayyy back. Even if Greenville doesn’t win, the people-powered Google chain was good for a smile.

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~ by Wil Finley on March 28, 2010.

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