By now you may have heard that Google is going to select a few places to build an ultra-high speed broadband network. This announcement has generated quite the stir in our tech world. Outside the United States this would not be such a big deal. Folks in Sweden are used to surfing the web at ungodly rates of speed, and so are people in Japan. And they pay about the same as we pay for our measly broadband. Google is going to spend A LOT of money to answer this question: what kind of amazing stuff would happen in United States if we had an super fast network?
Now let's be clear about what's going on. Google is not getting into the business of building network infrastructure; that's not it's mission. Google, however, is willing to catalyze the build-out process. The strategic imperative is picking the right places to experiment with. So how is Google going to decide who gets to experience tech-nirvana first?
Well, it's sort of a mystery. But here are some things that we know.
Google has begun accepting applications in response to its request for information (or 'RFI'). Interested communities have until March 26, 2010 to submit a response. And Google is looking for communities that have between 50,000 and 500,000 residents.
In making its decision, Google's obviously going to factor in the difficulty of installing the fiber network. That probably means both the 'technical difficulty' and 'political difficulty' (e.g. obtaining permits and avoiding approval bottlenecks etc.). I would imagine that Google would want some project diversity, to prove the experiment works across a range of community sizes and types.
Remember: Google wants other companies to build the fiber network across the United States. Google is just looking to jump-start the process. That means Google needs, more than anything, for the experiment to do more than just succeed in these select places. Ideally, at least one of these communities should succeed in a way that gets a lot of positive attention.
Solving the tech-hurdle of installation is easy if Google goes to a small rural community; but, if folks there don't do anything interesting it won't create the P.R. stir that Google's really wants. Google needs communities that will make use of this new power in an interesting way, and one that's visibly dramatic.
That's why New Orleans is an ideal market for Google's experiment. Sure, Googlers might have some initial reservations about picking New Orleans. But those reservations are based on false assumptions and insufficient knowledge. Let's dispense with their likely reservations right off the bat.
I don't know if there are major tech hurdles involved with installing fiber in New Orleans. Ironically, from what I understand, it's possible that Katrina made the task of laying fiber more feasible than it otherwise would have been. In case you hadn't noticed whilst driving around town, we're just now getting around to doing a lot of street repair. I'm told, by a friend who lays fiber for a living, that underground is the best place to put fiber. In addition to the massive street repair that's just getting started, we're also supposed to be undergoing massive repair to our sewer system.
So, if we're digging up streets and sewer lines, why not lay some fiber too? But, all in all, the key point is that New Orleans isn't likely to present any greater tech challenges than any other medium sized city. Even if it did, as I'll explain below, those additional challenges (if any) would be worth it.
New Orleans sometimes gets a rap for being unfriendly to business. That may have been true before Katrina (although I think it was not as bad as people sometimes believed), but it's not true anymore. Obviously, our national image before Katrina, or right after, was not great. Mayor Ray Nagin has not exactly been (how shall we put it?) a PR virtuoso. Before Katrina, Nagin was on a roll (the good kind), and people forget that Nagin was a champion of technology when he came into office. Certainly, he'd do what could to pave the way for Google, but…
Nagin isn't going to be in office past May of this year. That's when our new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, will take office. Mitch will be at least as supportive as Nagin would be (almost certainly more supportive), but with some added benefits.
First, Mitch is a much better ambassador for the city than Nagin. Mitch has real charisma and charm, and he knows how to sell this city to outsiders. Remember how hard he campaigned to bring the Hornets basketball franchise here? The Hornets deal showed that Mitch knows how to build political consensus and galvanize community support when it really counts. Oh, and being the Lieutenant Governor for the past few years gives him a good handle of state-wide politics, in case that's an issue.
Finally, Mitch's sister is a U.S. senator, which doesn't hurt whenever federal assistance is required. In short, Mitch is going to be at least as enthusiastic about the prospect of Google investing here as Nagin would be, but he's a much, much better ambassador, and he has far more political resources at his disposal. That takes care of the possible hurdles…
So why is New Orleans an obvious choice?
Assuming that there are no hurdles (political or otherwise), why lay fiber in New Orleans as opposed to the many other communities vying for this opportunity?
1. New Orleans is the right size.
Before Katrina the population in New Orleans wasn't even 500,000 (the upper end of the ideal population range). Right now our population is a little over 300,000. Google should want to prove that the fiber experiment can work in a mid-sized city, and we are the perfect mid-sized city. And, as an added bonus, our population is growing at a very rapid pace (we were recently ranked the fastest growing city in the U.S.).
No doubt much of the rapid growth is due to the return of displaced residents. But, it also stems from the influx of young entrepreneurs, and from the community volunteers brought here by Katrina. The Teach for America program has lured many young people who came to help for awhile, but then decided to stay. We know we're attracting young people in droves, so we just need to show the Googlers what's really happening here. What Google needs to learn is that New Orleans is already poised to become a haven for young creatives and techies. Kind of like Seattle. But, better because…
2. New Orleans is a boiling cauldron of creativity.
Google says it wants to prove that exciting new things can happen with an ultra-high speed network. That will require a community with a strong dose of creative DNA.
A city like New York may have a lot of creative energy, but that's only because it's a large city with massive financial capital. New Orleans's creative output is grass roots, and home-grown.
We invented the only authentic American music. You may have heard of it; it's called jazz, and it is the headwater of rock, blues, and pretty much everything else that isn't classical or foreign music. If you want to hire session musicians for a film soundtrack you'd probably go to L.A. (another large city that imports the bulk of its creative talent). But, if you want to record music that stirs your soul —blues, zydeco, funk, rock, Dixieland, jazz, fusion, rap, whatever— then you better head to New Orleans. Anyone in the music industry gets this.
Why did Dave Matthews come live in New Orleans for six months while he recorded his latest album? Why does David Byrne come and hangout at Tipitinas? Why does Lenny Kravitz live here? The question is not why they come here (they love the creative mix and the wonderful culture), the question is why do they ever leave? Often, it's because they need to work with other folks outside New Orleans. Maybe Google's experiment would show that leaving New Orleans isn't necessary.
What if Lenny Kravitz could collaborate with musicians and engineers outside New Orleans while he stayed here? Maybe Google fiber could show that musicians here could do 'live recordings' with musicians in other parts of the country. That kind of realtime musical collaboration is one thing would definitely require a lot of bandwidth.
I could go on about all the ways New Orleans can showcase the use of fiber, but that's beyond the scope of this blog post (check the NOLAFiber.com site for information as it comes in). We have a lot of creative output here, and it's not one-dimensional pablum like some other places I won't name. New Orleans is proud to be called “funky and untidy,” as famed British actress Helen Mirren observed (she also said we are her “contact with Europe in America” and that she “plans to die here.”). The point is New Orleans is quirky in a good way that people enjoy; Google people will 'get' that. The tourism industry is huge here, not because we have a top-notch PR team and a bunch of gimmicks. We have soul.
Look, pretty much any mid-sized place is going to have hospitals, colleges, businesses, and whatever else typical cities have. Only one mid-sized place in this country is brimming with charm, creativity, and culture. New Orleans is an international city as much as it is an American one. Ask a bunch of people in Europe to name an American city other than New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. And then see how many name New Orleans. For gods sake, New Orleans is used in the lyrics of at least 150 popular songs.
Here's the question Google should be asking itself: what if people around the world access to more of New Orleans culture through the Internet? Would people want to be able to see the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival live on their superfast internet pipes in Sweden, Paris, or Tokyo?
3. Success in New Orleans is a front page story that writes itself
We're now four years past the Katrina debacle: the hand-wringing festivals and pity-parties are over. People are not waiting for assistance from anywhere or hoping for a miracle. New Orleans is back on it's feet because of self-determination and hard work, and people outside pretty are starting to realize this. And if they didn't realize it before this year's Superbowl, they do now.
More people watched the Saints beat the Colts than had ever watched a single TV broadcast before. And that's not just trivia; that's an important fact. One hundred and six million people around the world learned that New Orleans has been vastly underestimated. Katrina knocked us down, but we got back up faster than people anticipated. We've been on a bold new path since Katrina, but we're only just now starting to see some impressive results. And I'm not talking about sports now (which really isn't all that important as a measure of our overall community improvement). Our schools are improving, and that's pretty much traceable to Katrina, weird as that may seem to an outsider.
In the next five years New Orleans is going to make even more dramatic improvement. That's going to happen whether Google invests here or not. But if Google were to put fiber here it would accelerate that improvement in some important ways. Then Google could take a lot of credit, and bask in the inevitable torrent of favorable publicity. The stories would practically write themselves. I can just imagine an in-depth piece in Esquire about the “bold gamble” behind Google's success in New Orleans. And that won't be the only “bold gamble” story that gets written.
Hey Google: act fast in New Orleans
If Google wants a firework of positive PR, then it should have fiber up and running here by 2013. Why then? Well, because, assuming the Mayans are wrong about the world ending the year before, Google could showcase its “bold gamble” when New Orleans hosts the Superbowl in 2013. That's right, the Superbowl (king of all hype-fests) will be played here in 2013.
Can you imagine the outrageous hoopla if New Orleans had fiber by then? All the captains of industry and media moguls flocking to a fun-filled city (New Orleans always ranked as one of the top two Superbowl host cities). Except now it's a city teeming with high speed fiber. The moguls will experience the “bold gamble” firsthand, while 100 million people around the world experience it through some kind of hair-raising new broadcast stream that takes advantage of the new fiber.
Yeah, New Orleans is pretty much the “no-brainer choice” for Google's project. Will Google realize that? I don't know, but I am willing to predict this: if they send a team to do a site evaluation here you can call it a 'done deal.'
Smart people can only overlook an obvious choice for so long.
Update: if you are from New Orleans and know of cool things that you or your friends would be able to do with ultra-high speed fiber, go here and tell us your story. The more good stories we collect, the easier it will be for Google to see what's obvious.