On Wednesday afternoon, as Mayor Greg Fischer joins GE Appliances CEO Chip Blankenship and the president of the state’s community and technical college system to launch a new workforce training program to boost advanced manufacturing, Louisville still won’t have Google Fiber.
The tech giant today gave golden tickets to its four latest Fiber cities: Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. That prompted a new round of grumbling in Louisville over why we were passed over yet again. (We should note here that we already knew we weren’t getting this round of Fiber; Google chose these four from a list of nine potential cities that has been out there for quite awhile. Still, are we jealous? We sure are. It takes three seconds to download 100 photos on Fiber. On our Internet connection at IL HQ, it takes 4 minutes and 40 seconds.)
We don’t really know why Louisville keeps missing the cut. But the tech giant is reportedly keeping in the hunt for future investments the five cities that didn’t get Fiber in this round — including Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City and Phoenix. So the prospects here aren’t good.
Meanwhile, private interest in building fiber here is evolving slowly. And although city officials and Mayor Greg Fischer have identified ultrahigh-speed Internet connectivity as a priority for economic development, they’ve taken municipal funding for a project off the table. And so we wait.
Any tech-minded businessperson will tell you slow Internet speeds will hamper growth really soon — if they aren’t already. Consider the growing regional advanced manufacturing sector. Greater Louisville Inc. calls the city “a world leader in advanced manufacturing,” a lofty claim with some support, including ongoing investments from Ford and GE, FirstBuild, the Louisville-Lexington BEAM Initiative to promote advanced manufacturing and expansion, and the success of local tech startups who are gaining national ground. Add to that various workforce-training initiatives, including the Kentucky Manufacturing Career Center at KentuckianaWorks.
That’s real momentum. But how long can we expect to grow as a world leader in new technologies while workers wait an hour to share CAD files over the Internet?
Metro tech guru Ted Smith has spearheaded the local government effort to get higher-speed Internet connectivity. He told Insider Louisville last month that a weak digital infrastructure could hurt the city’s ability to attract new businesses.
“It would be hard to argue that’s not relevant to having a vital economy,” he said.
Local tech advocates have started a Draft Louisville-style campaign, both on Facebook and at LouisvilleFiber.com. Tech adviser and organizer of the Louisville Geek Dinner Jay Garmon says the city can’t grow as a hub for advanced manufacturing or other tech industries without it.
“You want to know what the top two questions are on any software/tech firm’s list to ask the local chamber/econ dev apparatus when they consider relocating to a city?” he says. “One, do you have 300 mid- to high-level developers I can go hire within 90 days? Two, do you have high-speed fiber I can use to to connect to my customers/partners/home office/remote workers? The fact that we tend to answer no on both rules us out of a lot of deals.”
Citywide buildout would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Charter Communications, which will take over the city’s cable franchise agreement from Time Warner, has said it will increase speeds by about four times and agreed to a gigabit demonstration project. And last summer, Metro Council approved three franchise agreements for fiber builds in Louisville. All remain in the early planning stages, and none would include citywide connectivity.
Then there’s the Chattanooga model. The modest-sized Tennessee city has become a national demonstration project for publicly funded fiber. “Gig City,” as it’s becoming known, used nearly $220 million in taxpayer-supported funding and a $111 million grant from the federal stimulus program to build its fiber network, which costs consumers $70 a month and is 200 times faster than the national average. There’s little debate it has succeeded in attracting new tech businesses and entrepreneurs.
Smith says Louisville isn’t in any position to self-fund a fiber network. Nor is it in a position to underwrite nearly half the cost of a 30-story luxury hotel, which is what new tax-funding schemes are for. He told IL such a project could be ripe for the local option sales tax. But that would almost certainly have a disproportionate impact on low-income Louisvillians, who aren’t likely to spend $70 a month for Internet service but could be paying a small additional tax for it on regular purchases.
A better option might be a usage tax for those who adopt fiber at home or for their businesses, although that could wind up being cost-prohibitive.
The problem now, Smith told IL, is that in the absence of forward-thinking investments from Google or some other fiber angel, public demand will be key. And people here aren’t outraged enough about their crappy Internet service. That includes consumers, business owners, elected officials — pretty much all of us. It’s a message that can seem a little inadequate when the thing we need isn’t a building or law but a major municipal utility.
Thankfully, we shouldn’t worry too much. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said this week that the Internet will soon disappear, replaced by a vague and omnipresent ether of connectivity that will allow us to speedily control everything from thermostats to cell phones. So at least there’s that.