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Trying To Make Charlotte Google's Next "Fiber-Hood"


The city of Charlotte was recently given a bit of homework. How the city answers a series of questions will determine if neighborhoods like South Park, Uptown and Dilworth will be Google’s next fiber-hoods. So what could Google Fiber in Charlotte mean for consumers and businesses alike?  

Let’s start with a little background on what Google Fiber is.

Google Fiber connects your computer to the internet by a series of tubes, tiny glass ones that use light to transmit data back and forth. That light can also carry more information than the copper wire that cable companies use now. All this vastly increases internet speed. "They are moving internet connectivity to a completely different level," says Joanne Hovis, President of CTC Technology and Energy, a broadband consulting firm.  And that level is exponentially faster says Hovis. "They are moving from the tens of megabits to the thousands."

Now if megabits aren’t your thing – here’s another way to look at it: That famous song played during Final Jeopardy lasts about 30 seconds. Lets say that song represented the time it takes you to download a movie.   Google Fiber is about 100 times faster, so you could listen to the same song - in its entirety -three times in less than a second.

Google’s service is currently only available in three cities; Austin, Provo, Utah and Kansas City.  So it was a surprise when the company announced last month it might expand to 34 other areas including Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte. This would mean laying hundreds of miles of fiber and creating a whole new network. It would be a massive undertaking says Jeffery Stovall, Charlotte's Chief Information Officer.  He's leading the city's effort to land Google Fiber. "It’s a giant infrastructure project but there are several things that we can do to help streamline the process."

Stovall and his team are working through Google’s 29 page "Fiber City Checklist" in order to put together the city’s submission.  But, says Stovall, "This is not a bid.  This is not a competition, it’s an evaluation.  They’re really trying to evaluate what it takes in order to bring their service offering here to Charlotte."

So what is Google looking for as it decides the next round of fiber haves and haves nots? It's not tax incentives says Hovis.  "Google doesn’t really lack for funds in this sense."

And Joanne Hovis should know, she works closely with Google on this issue. The company is willing to foot the bill.    

What Google wants is data.  Detailed maps of utility poles and underground conduits.  Street lights and land plots. All things that can speed up construction time. Less time deploying the system means less cost to Google and that makes Charlotte a much more interesting prospect.

Now what does all this mean for you?

Right now, Google Fiber would offer a real alternative to standard cable monopolies for consumers.  For that faster internet and TV (but with fewer cable channels), Google currently charges around $120 a month. An internet only subscription would run you around $70.

Cheaper cables bills aside - Hovis believes having homes wired with fiber could mean much, much more in the not so distant future.  Its a future pathway to services yet to be invented but that could change just about everything.  She compares it to when America first started wiring houses for electricity.  "We did it for electric lights. But nobody ever anticipated the dishwasher.  Or the dial up modem or the computer," says Hovis, "But the prosperity that we had for the last 100 years has been based on the fact that we had that electric grid."

Credit Tom Bullock/WFAE News
Adam Hill at Packard Place.

And there are businesses in Charlotte already trying to take advantage of that.

Adam Hill is the director of Packard Place in Uptown.  It’s a facility that houses some 75 companies.  Most are small but growing and most are high tech. High speed internet is so important Hill couldn’t wait for Google. "If you’re running on a small cable connection and you can't upload things to your server or download things from your server quickly it’s a hindrance to your business. So by having very quick internet you kind of have a leg up."

And he thinks this would help local business in another way.  Right now its difficult to recruit top tier talent to Charlotte.  Hill believes the allure of Google Fiber could change that. "We have a bunch of startups here in the building that have teams in India and teams in Russia.  A large part of that is difficulty in finding the right folks here in Charlotte."

That allure has helped Kansas City.  In fact, Fitch, the credit ratings firm, upgraded its outlook for Kansas City last year from negative to stable.  One big reason, Google Fiber was, "Attracting a number of smaller internet and data companies with the potential to make a significant impact on the city’s economy."

Tom Bullock decided to trade the khaki clad masses and traffic of Washington DC for Charlotte in 2014. Before joining WFAE, Tom spent 15 years working for NPR. Over that time he served as everything from an intern to senior producer of NPR’s Election Unit. Tom also spent five years as the senior producer of NPR’s Foreign Desk where he produced and reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon among others. Tom is looking forward to finally convincing his young daughter, Charlotte, that her new hometown was not, in fact, named after her.