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Jared Starkey is going all out for Google (GOOG) broadband. The day after Google said it would provide high-speed Internet service to as many as 500,000 people in the U.S., Starkey set up a Facebook page to persuade the company to come to his hometown of Topeka, Kan. Since then, Starkey has passed out bright-orange necklaces made of fiber-optic cable and even organized a rally of 100 Topekans in support of the broadband plan. "I've been talking to absolutely everybody about this," says the 26-year-old owner of a small Web design company.
Cities and towns across the country, hungry for better broadband, are trying to grab Google's attention. The Mountain View (Calif.) company said last month it's planning a new Internet service of 1 gigabit per second, or about 20 times faster than the speediest offering from Verizon Communications (VZ). Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, says the company may spend "hundreds of millions" on the effort, which will involve stringing fiber-optic lines into homes in a small number of cities. Google is accepting applications on its Web site until Mar. 26.
Google hasn't said whether it will offer the service more broadly in the future or what it will charge, but analysts believe the initiative is more about motivating existing broadband providers than direct financial gain. The average Net connection in the U.S. is 3.9 megabits per second, according to Web services provider Akamai Technologies (AKAM), well behind the 14.6 and 7.9 averages for South Korea and Japan. If American Net service gets faster, people will likely spend more time watching videos or playing games online, providing Google fresh ways to expand its advertising business. "Google is trying to push the issue, to show what opportunities there are with ultra-fast broadband," says analyst Jason Blackwell of ABI Research.
Municipalities are going well beyond formal applications to be part of the experiment. Greensboro, N.C., is preparing an "Operation Google" gift package for delivery to Google headquarters and has earmarked $50,000 for promoting its broadband effort. The mayor of Topeka renamed the city Google for the month of March. Officials in Duluth, Minn., responded with a video declaring that "in order to prevail in the Google-pandering arms race," every first-born male in the city will change his first name to "Google Fiber." (Yes, it was a joke.)
Many cities, desperate to get the nod from Google, are relying on citizen-led efforts. Activists have set up more than 70 Facebook pages to attract attention to cities like Grand Rapids, Mich.; Columbia, Mo.; and Ventura, Calif. Google may pay heed. "Level of community support is certainly one of the factors we're considering," says a spokesman.
Local companies are getting involved, too, since they hope faster Internet service will help create jobs and business opportunities. A Topeka restaurant called The Break Room handed out 20 coupons for free dinners to people who filled out an online petition in support of Google's broadband service. In Baltimore, small-business owners created a Facebook page called Bmore Fiber! that has attracted 3,850 fans. The activists have also set up a mobile-phone text-messaging campaign that will alert residents to upcoming activities, such as passing out flyers or going door to door to rally resident support. "I've been here for 15 years, and I've never seen this kind of grassroots support come together so quickly," says Andrew Frank, a former Baltimore deputy mayor.
Google won't say what all the criteria are for picking the broadband winners, which has led to some unusual, if impassioned, appeals. On Topeka's Facebook page, locals Kurt Eskilson and Dan Billen posted what they call an "Internet love ballad":
Topeka's a wasteland for Internet nerds
But could there be hope? I think that I heard
Google is coming with speed we deserve.
With Brian Womack in San Francisco