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Is Google making people go gaga?

Last month, the company announced plans to test the next generation of high-speed Internet in a small number of communities. It urged people to be creative in applications, and some folks got downright giddy for Google.

Topeka, Kan., temporarily renamed itself Google. In front of a cheering crowd, Mayor Don Ness of Duluth, Minn., plunged into Lake Superior for a YouTube video aimed in part to show Google the enthusiasm among his people for the pilot project.

Mayor John Engen of Missoula does not plan to take a dip in the chilly Clark Fork River, but the desire among some folks in the technology business to attract Google to this mountain town is strong.

Could the deal also be overrated? One company serving Missoula has invested more money in its Montana, Wyoming and western Colorado network than Google spent last year in the entire country, according to a technology analyst.

Missoula already sits on a major fiber-optic route that runs from Minneapolis to Seattle, said a chief technology officer. And widening the pipeline here doesn't necessarily mean changes on the ground.

Say for a minute the pipe is so huge, it allows folks at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival to collect films over the Internet and save money on shipping. It sounds good, but there seems to be a glitch.

"Do all those independent filmmakers have access to this kind of technology on their end? Probably not," said festival director Michael Steinberg. "How do they get this stuff uploaded to us?"

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Spokesmen from two companies that already serve the Missoula area differed in their reactions to the Google offer - but Bresnan Communications and Blackfoot Communications both noted that Missoula is on the connected side of the digital divide.

"We have a history of being not only ahead of the curve on technology, but offering it to people in places where large companies have chosen not to," said Shawn Beqaj, vice president for Bresnan public affairs.

Beqaj said Bresnan wired fiber into the Mayo Clinic in the early 1990s and offered high-speed data service to Escanaba, Mich., before cable modems were available in New York City.

In 2003, the company purchased a system that includes Missoula. It invested $1.3 billion to bring the latest technology to Montana, Wyoming and western Colorado.

"Services in Missoula are as fast or faster than anywhere in the nation," Beqaj said. "That's a fact."

The investment also put fiber into the network to be able to offer "this next-generation technology" when the need arises. Beqaj said Americans' appetite for data is enormous and growing, but Bresnan historically has stayed ahead of that curve.

"Yes we have and do offer people direct fiber connections that are as fast as anything available today, including what Google is proposing," Beqaj said. "But people don't buy bandwidth for bandwidth's sake. We provide service levels that meet the needs that people have for the applications that they are running and are available to them."

(Take YouTube videos, for example. Typical broadband runs 10 to 15 megabits per second, according to an industry expert. By comparison, the highest-quality content on YouTube is 3.75 megabits per second.)

Beqaj said if Google comes to town, new vendors shouldn't get preferential treatment. If the playing field remains level, he said he won't be concerned with Bresnan's ability to compete.

"Historically, we believe competition has been good for us," Beqaj said. "Whenever we have competition in the market, it drives all the providers in that market to do a better job."

***

That's where Blackfoot Communications chief technology officer Dave Martin offers a different point of view. He said Google will pour money into the project for research without having to turn a profit - a setup that's inherently unfair.

"Obviously, Google will operate this at a loss and can afford to do so for quite some time," Martin said. "The rest of us can't. That skews the playing field."

But he, too, lauded the high-speed Internet access people already have here. Blackfoot territory wraps around Missoula and covers Thompson Falls, Philipsburg and St. Ignatius.

Martin said more than 98 percent of the customers can get DSL speeds of roughly 6 megabits per second. More than half can get 15 mbps. Martin said Blackfoot could meet the needs of a company wanting 50 mbps within 30 days.

"We're on a major fiber route from Minneapolis to Seattle, so we have a lot of access to a lot of services," Martin said. "People need to embrace that and tout it rather than kind of wringing their hands and saying, ‘Woe is me, we don't have access to those kinds of services here.' "

Take S&K Technologies in "little ol' St. Ignatius." He said the company writes technical manuals for the F-15 fighter jet and translates reconnaissance data for military applications.

"They're able to do it because they're connected to the rest of the world at whatever speed they need to be at," Martin said.

He said Google wants to see how people behave online if Internet speeds and cost aren't factors. It's presenting a 1 gigabit per second connection at a "competitive price."

"That's a virtually unlimited pipe," Martin said.

***

Whether people can make use of it and afford to do so is another story, said George Ou. Ou is the policy director for Digital Society, a nonprofit think tank advocating "a pro-culture, pro-commerce digital society through research, analysis and debate on emerging technology issues."

Ou had pointed out the small size of YouTube videos. He said it's technically possible to build an application that requires multiple gigabits, but it's so expensive it isn't attractive to potential builders or buyers.

"Can we build a gold-plated Mercedes? Yes. We can do that," Ou said. "But who can afford a million-dollar car? It's (Google's offer is) about as ridiculous as a gold-plated Mercedes."

He also said the company spent less in one year on capital expenditures in the entire country than the $1.3 billion Bresnan spent in three states. And Google shareholders already are "moaning" about the idea a billion dollars might go into this Fiber for Communities project.

"It's really a PR ploy because Google last year spent less than $1 billion for the whole company," Ou said.

Ou, whose background is in network engineering and journalism, said Google is looking for the cheapest place to build and the biggest bang for its buck. That means a place with high density, the most public relations potential and the least amount of regulation.

"Then they're going to say that this example applies to the whole country and they want the cable and telecoms to replicate this on a national level, or they hope the federal regulators will demand this of them," Ou said. "The problem is that their cherry-picked examples are nothing like the whole country."

Ou said the motive - and Google says nearly as much on its Fiber for Communities Web site - is to push telecommunications to build faster broadband. But he also said telecommunications is an expensive business, and it's easy to complain that someone else should build bigger and better.

"It's really doubtful they're going to do anything outrageous with this whole broadband project," Ou said.

***

Google did not respond Thursday to a voicemail or by e-mail to Missoulian inquiries.

The Google skeptics could be shortsighted, though, and the offer remains enticing to many folks in the techno crowd here.

Film festival director Steinberg isn't pushing the endeavor, but he said he believes Missoula would be an interesting test case. At the same time, he also said the Google project likely wouldn't fix the lag in technology for the festival because it's on a different end.

Because of high interest in the community, Mayor John Engen is holding a community forum from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, March 18, in Missoula City Council Chambers, 140 W. Pine St.

Engen said in an e-mail that he isn't pulling any rabbits out of hats in Missoula's application for the Google project. The mayor's wit appears to be always on, though.

"No stunts here. We want to demonstrate demand, necessity and the return on investment that a creative, innovative community can provide as a model to Google. And my full name has an O, a G and an E, which are three of the five letters in Google. That should count for something."

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262, keila.szpaller @missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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