Columbians contemplate Google Fiber possibilities

Hospital, business interests say ultra high speed Internet would be a boon.
Thursday, March 11, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 1:48 p.m. CST, Thursday, March 11, 2010
Modenia Burk, an information system team supervisor at Boone Hospital, explains how the hospital’s computer records are stored in the data room of the building’s basement. The equipment behind her allows medical professionals to access records from remote locations. Burk said some of the hospital's files are massive and it could use a faster Internet connection. Hospital officials are hoping Columbia is selected to test Google Fiber.

COLUMBIA — Boone Hospital Center representatives say they always try to stay on the cutting edge of technology, so Google’s plan to provide ultra high-speed fiber-optic Internet in select communities has them buzzing.

And they’re not the only ones.


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Ultra-fast Internet “would be very beneficial, especially with images,” said Kim Proctor, who works in the hospital’s data center. “Speed is always good.”

The technology, which would supply a one-gigabit Internet connection, could advance the hospital’s data-sharing system, meaning local doctors could zip out pictures of patients’ medical scans more quickly to get diagnoses from far-away medical specialists. The hospital’s board of trustees has formally notified Google of its interest in using the fiber technology.

“Who wouldn’t welcome it?” asked Modenia Burk, an information systems team supervisor at the county-owned hospital. She added that files the hospital handles can be “massive” and that an ultra high-speed connection soon will be necessary.

“Everything is going to be transferred electronically,” she said. “It’s inevitable.”

If Columbia wins the highly competitive bid for Google Fiber, the ultra-fast connection also could immediately affect small businesses that want to provide real-time and high-definition customer services. And it could improve online tutoring for people who can’t leave their homes.

And perhaps more importantly, it would put Columbia on the map as a technology hub, attracting tech-savvy minds to join the Internet experiment. Google’s proposition already has sparked efforts to bring faster Internet to mid-Missouri.

“We could easily turn Columbia into a Midwest tech capital,” said Ian Eyberg, founding member of Como Fiber, a new advocacy group fighting to amp up the city’s Internet capabilities. “We could very well see an influx of business.”

Hype for the hyper-fast  

Last month, Google announced its experiment to provide Internet speeds 100 times faster than standard speed through fiber-optic cables. The Internet giant is encouraging government, interest groups and individuals to apply by explaining why Google Fiber should come to their community. Applications are due by March 26.

Google would lay the fiber-optic cables and work with local Internet service providers, or ISPs, to make it available to the community.

It’s no surprise that competition for Google Fiber is stiff, said Mike Brooks, president of Regional Economic Development, Inc., in Columbia. Nearly 250 community groups are courting Google Fiber on Facebook, and The Associated Press reported earlier this week that several thousand people have nominated their communities.

The mayor of Topeka, Kan., proclaimed that his city would be known as Google, Kan., during March in an effort to attract its new namesake’s attention. And the mayor of Duluth, Minn., jumped in Lake Superior.

At the MU men’s basketball game against Kansas on Saturday, fans of Google Fiber handed out pre-made signs that fans held during a television timeout.

Google remains tight-lipped about the project, providing only a few paragraphs of information on its Web site. Jake Parillo, Midwest manager of global communications and public affairs at Google, said he could not talk about Google Fiber.

Even in the event that Google Fiber does not choose Columbia as a prototype city, Eyberg said Como Fiber would continue its efforts to bring similar technology to the city. The advocacy group, formed just last month after learning of the Google Fiber proposal, wants to create a publicly owned — and possibly publicly funded — cooperative to provide its own citywide fiber-optic system.

Grants also are available to pay for such projects, Eyberg said. He estimated that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and that it could take three to five years for a cooperative to lay a fiber system across Columbia. Eyberg speculated that Google’s resources might allow it to get the project going within a year.

Internally, the city runs its own fiber-optic network connecting its buildings, but it is limited by fair competition rules and cannot extend fiber optics to other households or businesses, Water and Light Department spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz said.

Fiber possibilities for Columbia  

Fiber fans across the city already are brainstorming possible projects for Google’s new high-speed system.

Keith Politte, manager of the Reynolds Journalism Institute Technology Testing Center, said Google Fiber could reinvent local civic engagement by allowing the city to stream real-time video of public meetings and candidate forums. This would allow citizens to participate more actively and to comment on city government functions as they happen.

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said that while city government already streams meetings live, its limited bandwidth makes load time for videos long and the experience cumbersome.

“(Fiber) would certainly solve that problem,” Skala said. “It would enable more people to have more information, and that would make a profound change in educating the electorate.”

Amberly Engert, a Columbia resident and member of Como Fiber, said she would be excited to participate in two-way video streaming of public meetings and all the other opportunities a fiber-based Columbia may develop.

“There’s so many things that could be created that I can’t even imagine,” said Engert, who works as a social media manager for True Media, a media strategy company in Columbia.

At Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a continuing education program affiliated with MU that provides courses for adults older than 50, a fiber connection could mean higher-quality streaming of class lessons.

“It would help us reach those over 50 who are kind of on the outer limits of the city and across the state,” Osher employee Adam Newman said.

Fiber also would impact the city’s businesses. For Miller’s Professional Imaging, a digital photography lab in Columbia, fiber’s high speeds would allow the high-resolution photos it receives to load more quickly.

Last year, Miller’s processed 21 million photographs from across the country, and oftentimes photographers would send the pictures in the evenings, when the Web is heavily trafficked, CEO Richard Miller, said.

“Moving data back and forth quickly is a concern obviously in a business like ours,” Miller said. With ultra-fast fiber, “there’s going to be fewer bottlenecks along the digital highway for us.”

Old technologies would need to play catch-up

These ideas are virtually impossible in Columbia because of speeds provided by the area’s current Internet service market.

Columbia receives its Internet from a variety of providers, the most prominent being Mediacom, CenturyLink, Socket and Tranquility.

Mediacom offers the highest Internet speeds in Columbia, at 50 megabits per second. They offer this connection through a fiber network, but their speeds are a fraction of what Google would offer.

Mediacom spokeswoman Phyllis Peters said Mediacom does not offer speeds as high as Google is proposing because the public hasn’t needed those speeds.

“We can ramp (the speed) up as needed and when needed,” she said. “But our consumers are telling us they don’t need this, they aren’t ready for it.”

After offering a higher speed of 105 megabits per second in communities in Delaware and Iowa, Peters said Mediacom discovered that customers’ computers aren’t capable of using the high speeds.

While the average household devices may not be able to handle ultra-high speeds immediately, Politte said Google Fiber would challenge communities to step things up. Areas that receive Google Fiber will have the opportunity to create new devices to take advantage of higher speeds.

Eyberg said the average person might not need a fiber connection now, but households will need speedier connections down the road when technologies advance. And after people experience new technology, it’s hard to go back. “Once you get that new phone and start using it, you’re like ‘Wow, I can’t believe I never had this,’” he said.

Fiber optics also has been termed “future proof,” meaning it will require less updating than other modes of Internet connection, Eyberg said. Comparatively, many ISPs such as CenturyLink provide service through copper wires, which probably won’t be able to handle the Internet demand five years from now, he added.

Fiber could mean lower Internet price rates

Google plans to provide its fiber connection through multiple ISPs, meaning competition would increase because several companies in one area would provide the same high-speed product. The company says it would offer Internet service at “comparable prices,” which Eyberg said could mean $30 to $100 a month depending on the connection package. But nobody knows for sure. 

Even if Google abandons the project after laying the fiber cables, it will leave behind the infrastructure needed for ISPs to provide ultra-fast connections to customers, Eyberg said.  

Socket spokeswoman Stephanie Rosskopf said her company welcomes the competition Google could create and would want to partner with the fiber provider.

Hunter Cook, a member of Como Fiber and the data center manager of Tranquility Internet Services, said Google Fiber would be a big help for customers.

“We think that offering multiple companies the opportunity to access a truly high performance network will bring down prices and improve performances for consumers, and we are for that,” he said.

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