In the rush to snag Google's offer to provide superfast, 1-gigabit-per-second Internet connectivity to a small- to medium-sized American town, some communities are temporarily changing their name (Google, Kan., instead of Topeka; Google, N.C., instead of Carrboro). Should Asheville do the same? Mayor Terry Bellamy posed that question as she took the microphone, working the crowd of almost 200 that had gathered to talk Google at a March 18 town-hall meeting in the Asheville Civic Center ballroom.
The mayor's opening remarks were followed by a panel discussion and breakout brainstorming sessions. Admitting that she barely understands all the tech-speak, Bellamy went on to say that 1 gigabit is fast and would transform the town, the county and the region.
The warp-speed technology would rev up the area's economic engine, offer incredible resources to students, entice more high-tech companies to locate here and more, advocates maintain. But with such a glittering prize, it's hard to keep track of how many towns are in the mix, and it's going to be real competitive fight, said Dale Carroll, the state's deputy commerce secretary.
But Bellamy turned thumbs down on changing the city's name to curry Google's favor. "We're Asheville," she said, noting the town's unique assets, including the National Climatic Data Center. And while many towns are talking about how they're going to reach new heights with an Internet connection that's 100 times faster than what's now available, Bellamy urged turning the idea on its head: "We're going to take Google to the next level!"
City Council member Gordon Smith continued the pep talk, saying Asheville is No. 9 among the top 25 cities in contention — at least in terms of their social-media efforts to promote their case. (Even the number of tweets Xpress text-messaged during the meeting was sufficient to overload TweetDeck, the program we use to get the word out.)
Panelist and big-time Twitterer José Ibarra of Applied Solutions Group pitched the educational advantages: 26,000 students in Asheville and Buncombe County would benefit from superfast Internet. "You can give students laptops, but if they don't have enough bandwidth, they can't use them," he remarked.
Panelist Hunter Goosman, who owns ERC Broadband, pitched the numbers: Google, he noted, is willing to invest $500 million in whichever community it picks. That kind of dough will help bring high-speed service directly to homes and businesses — "the last mile" that connects Internet users to major transmission lines.
Winning Google's high-speed infrastructure would be just as transformative to Asheville as the arrival of the railroad was in the 1800s, said panelist Troy Tolle of Digital Chalk. The U.S., he added, has fallen behind the rest of the world in technological innovation and broadband access; initiatives such as Google's could help turn that trend around, he said, urging, "Let's make Asheville the innovation capital of the world."
With that in mind, meeting organizers encouraged attendees to get up out of their chairs, move to the poster-size sheets of paper lining the room, and write down their ideas for what Google can do for Asheville and Buncombe County. There were sheets titled "Health Care" and "Technology," "Music" and "Education," and more. The audience dispersed, perusing the sheets and picking up markers to have their say.
As folks made their marks, Xpress asked one event coordinator whether some recent changes in local Internet speeds — at no extra cost to customers — might indicate that telecommunications companies are taking note of Google's initiative. "Absolutely," said Sandy Maxey, a principal at Beta Regional Systems. By spotlighting the current lack of truly high-speed Internet in the United States — and the high cost of what we do get, compared with other industrialized countries, she continued, "Google is making a political statement here."
For her part, Margaret Bennett, a local homeopathic practitioner, remarked, "If we had a Google in the sky, we could provide an encyclopedia of alternative and complementary health care." She dutifully wrote this suggestion on the health-care boards, joining a host of others who wandered the room and added their ideas — including a group of home-schooled kids and their parents, who noted such benefits as better access to virtual classrooms.
As town-hall coordinator Ben Teague explained it, the next step is gathering such ideas and picking the best ones to be part of the final push for Google. The deadline for community applications is March 26. What else would he like to see happen as the clock ticks down? "Tell your friends — and go online and nominate your city yourself."
To nominate Asheville, fill out the form at googleavl.com.