Thoughts on Google Fiber: Why Madison? (Part 2 of 3)

Now, why does Madison stand a good shot at being a candidate city? First, Why not? It’s as good as any other city, and it’s doubtful that Google has candidates already in mind, unless they’re just looking to see how ridiculous cities are willing to go, to give them something to chuckle about at the Googleplex. Given that they haven’t announced any real criteria, or even how many networks they’re looking to build, at best we can make a few guesses from what they have said. In the end, for all we know they’re going to go with the city that the roommate of some engineer’s cousin thought has the best set of burger joints.

Demographically, we’re about perfect: right in the middle of the population size they’re looking to target, education and income levels above national averages, which means Madisonians are more likely to be able to want and afford faster Internet access, and our particular geography on the isthmus makes us a bit denser than other cities, which means less fiber build-out. Without a doubt, our biggest asset is the University – it more than anything else in the area can be the source of new applications that need the high bandwidth. Many technology-enhanced learning proposals would make much more sense if there were more parity between off-campus network bandwidth and on-campus bandwidth. The UW is also such a disproportionately large employer, has many jobs that can telecommute, and can be nimble enough to believably say that its employees actually will telecommute. (The State of Wisconsin would be great too, but no one would believe it if it said it was going to drive applications or change work patterns that true high speed Internet might make available.) As much as possible, our application should talk about what we want to do with a high speed network, and not just hope that someday we’ll figure it out.

I don’t want to be too down on the local high-tech scene, because I think there are some great people who I consider friends here doing great work, and it’s only getting bigger and better, but it’s not really big enough to be credible. Certainly, we should mention it – but it’s not our lead. Epic is big, but it’s not a real driver of other technology companies. We don’t read enough about new companies “founded by former Epic Engineers.” Getting more people to quit Epic and start their own companies (with the knowledge that if they fail, Epic will still be there and they could go back) is something the region should be focused on for economic development.

MUFN is a big deal and should be emphasized. MUFN, the Madison Unified Fiber Network, is a “Middle Mile” network. (Borrowing agan the highway analogy, this would be like the East Washington Ave or Stoughton Road of network – not a lot of people live on them, but they’re vital for connecting an area. They feed smaller networks, and connect to larger networks.) MUFN was never intended to be a way for consumers to connect directly to the Internet. To quote DoIT staff who worked on MUFN, “The primary focus of the partnership is… for public sector gateway institutions, and the UW’s interest is in enhancing network connectivity for many units that are located on off campus locations in the metropolitan area.” I’ve never seen the full MUFN proposal, but there was a summary document from the school district that has some good information, and the “Fact Sheet” for MUFN from the BTOP program submissions from Wisconsin has some good information.

MUFN is only half of what we asked for, though – there is a companion request for the “Madison Broadband Initiative“. It’s a “Last Mile” proposal, ie it would actually connect consumers to the Internet. To quote, “The purpose of the Madison Broadband Initiative (MBI) is to provide free, low-cost or competitively priced broadband service to anchor tenants and vulnerable populations through fiber deployment and a Wi-Fi mesh network.” It wouldn’t cover the whole city, only some parts, like the northside and southside, where MadCityBroadband doesn’t currently provide service. (MadCityBroadband would operate the network to consumers.) The full application is here. I don’t think we’ve heard back from the Federal Government on whether or not MBI has been funded yet – we just heard back on MUFN, and they’re meant to be partner programs, so I think we’ve got a good chance on MBI. MBI is interesting for the Google app because it’s an opportunity for a partnership with Google. Google is only interested in fiber, but wireless can and should be part of a subscriber’s service, so it’s a way for Google to offer better service to their customers without having to build out a wireless network of their own.

Obviously, having the Google office in Madison helps, but I doubt it’s a big enough deal to make a serious impact.

So, are there strikes against Madison? Not a lot. The big one is “we’re as good as any other city”, which means that there are lots of other cities that could make a convincing case. If we have a strike, it’s probably our electricity fuel mix – Wisconsin relies disproportionately on coal for its power. If, as part of their network, Google wanted to open a large data center nearby, Wisconsin would be a less-likely choice, because when carbon is finally priced into the electricity bill, Wisconsin will suffer. It’s not clear that Google wants or needs to put a data center here, though.

In the end, if we don’t get it, does it really matter? Probably not. Hopefully, just by doing this, Google forces the rest of the industry to catch up. Google is good at that – does anyone remember how online mapping worked before Google Maps? In the first few years, it’ll be nice to have a leg up over other cities, and it’d be a temporary boon for the city to attract workers. (I’m sure there are people who would look at the availability of 1Gbs Internet access as a strong incentive to chose living in Madison, which would help our employers attract workers. If Google selected Madison and only covered the Isthmus, it’d probably spur some downtown condo sales, too) However, in the end, that high speed access will be the norm, not the exception.

As a final note, one of the most exciting things about Madison completing this RFI and collecting the supporting information will be to see how excited people are for more faster Internet access, and to talk about how by building this infrastructure, we’ll be unleashing a lot of economic potential that’s been just waiting below the surface – potential we’ve always known was there. It’s not like it’s a technical challenge to build what Google’s proposing to do. That invites the question – why haven’t we done this earlier? Instead of waiting for a white knight from the marketplace to save us, why didn’t we do this for ourselves? We briefly explored this on the BRTB, trying to find a way to build a fiber network for Madison. The reason we can’t? Republicans pushed through a law, straight from industry playbooks, preventing cities from building their own broadband network and offering it to consumers. It was supposed to make it possible for competition to come in, but it’s been six years, and nothing has happened. Instead, it’s just protected the profits of the incumbents, who are content to just enjoy the revenue stream. There’s good reason to believe that a “public option” for a fiber network would spur competition.

If, at the end of this process, we amass overwhelming evidence that high speed Internet access would create jobs and grow our economy, and Google doesn’t select us, will we shrug and say “Oh well”, or will we find the courage and political will and do ourselves what we say is needed?

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1 comment so far

  1. Al Chiozzi on

    Thanks for taking the time to write this blog. It’s extremely well done and informative. I think the city would make good use of the Google fiber network. My personal preference would be to build a municipally-owned network but I doubt I’ll see that day. I built some 30 cable systems in the Boston area back in the 70s and 80s and later design campus and corporate cabling systems for Wang Laboratories (including the old WangNet system at UW). I now own a very small company called Broadband Infrastructures here in Madison, but am closing in on retirement (I think). It’s my hope that folks like you will further the efforts that my age group both started and stalled. The technology is fun but the positive societal implications become more important with age. When I was a young catv dude, I innocently told my vice-president that I thought we were providing a valuable service. He turned to me and said “Al, we’re a sewer that delivers”, lol. I didn’t know how true that was until I saw “Jersey Shore”. Keep up the good work and good luck in D. C. – Al Chiozzi


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