March 14, 2010

Tompkins Officials Contemplate Allowing New Google High Speed Internet Test

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Google’s most recent foray into a new industry — the company’s plan to build high-speed broadband Internet networks in selected areas countrywide — may soon come to Ithaca. Although the initiative could mean faster connections for some local residents, county officials and community members remain split on whether Ithaca would make a good testing ground for the trial service.

Google has released few details about project so far, but the company says it plans to offer fiber-to-home Internet connections that is more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today. The one-gigabit-per-second service will be reasonably priced and available to as many as 500,000 people, according the Google’s website.

Counties interested in the project must first provide Google with information ranging from the area’s topography to annual rates for utility pole rentals. Google will then narrow down the list of applicants and visit potential testing areas within the next few months. Decisions should take place by the end of the year.

Tompkins County Deputy Supervisor Paula Younger said the county plans to submit a response to Google’s request for information by the March 26 deadline. Some local residents believe that county officials, however, should spend their time on more important issues than compiling numbers for Google. Ithacans may not even fully benefit from Google’s network because many, especially those at Cornell and Ithaca College, already have fast Internet access.

Nick Fishman, sophomore-at-large representative of Cornell’s Association of Computer Science Undergraduates, believes that even if the trial does not come to Tompkins, the project still has the potential to transform the Internet experience worldwide.

“Though faster broadband is already available in many areas, it’s not cost-effective for most people,” he said. “Internet providers have little incentive to lower prices, since this would lower their profit margins.”

He cited Gmail, the email client Google introduced in 2004 that expanded storage space from the industry standard of 2 megabytes to 25 megabytes to 1000 megabytes for free, as one of the company’s revolutionary advancements. Since Cornell uses Google for its email service, adopting the company’s new Internet may eliminate network usage limitations on campus.

The project could also enhance Internet access for students living off-campus and for Ithacans still using slower connections, according to Cornell Cooperative Extension Director Ken Schlather.

“A much bigger set of Internet pipes between not only Cornell’s Ithaca campus and the county, but between Weill Cornell and Tompkins County would be a really important tool,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in the unforeseen and unimagined benefits that can take place when young, energetic, curious and enthusiastic people have challenging and serious conversations with other community members about a whole range of issues that people in this county care about.”

Schlather said a faster Internet could provide stronger connections between students and the communities surrounding Cornell, adding a new dimension to students’ education and ability to participate in virtual internships. Optimizing research and scholarship opportunities would additionally support the University’s efforts to “Reimagine Cornell.”

Globally, Google hopes to spur investment in high-speed Internet by testing ways to improve access. On its official blog, the company emphasizes the benefits of allowing rural medical clinics to stream live records and students to watch remote lectures in 3-D.

With the government drafting plans for healthcare reform and economic recovery, demonstrating real advantages to high-speed Internet could sway national debate. The United States currently lags other developed countries in Internet speed, and Internet providers often resist improving connections if it means reducing profits. Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has voiced his support for Google’s plan. “Big broadband creates big opportunities,” he said in a recent statement.

“This significant trial will provide an American testbed for the next generation of innovative, high-speed Internet apps, devices, and services.”

Some have criticized Google for using its power to mold the Internet to its liking. They call the broadband initiative a public relations gimmick designed to maximize Google’s policy influence and advertising revenues by pressuring Internet providers to improve access. Fishman, however, feels the plan is in everyone’s best interest.

“Google can provide more advanced features that transmit lots of information very quickly, without worrying that people won’t be able to take advantage of them,” he said. “The street view feature of Google Maps wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago with dial-up, for example.”

The odds that Google selects Ithaca, though, remain uncertain. Younger believes cooperation with the academic internet-using communities of Cornell and Ithaca College could distinguish Tompkins County from the thousands of reported applicants. Some local legislators want more details about the project’s costs and timetable before submitting a nomination, but Google has denied requests for more information.

Schlather said Tompkins’ chances depend not only on how many applications Google receives, but also on what criteria the company finds most important. Regardless, many remain optimistic even if Ithaca is not chosen.

“It’s exciting to see the Internet grow around us,” Fishman said. “If all goes well, five years from now the Internet will be a totally different place.”

Original Author: Dan Robbins