Can Google Save Philadelphia?

The city wants the search engine giant to build experimental, ultra-high speed Internet here. The implications for the city — and our lives — could be enormous.

In February, when Google announced it was accepting proposals from municipalities where it could build experimental ultra-high speed broadband Internet, I fired off an email to Allan Frank, the city’s chief technology officer.

It’s not often that I share links with city officials. It was knee-jerk. Growing the city’s information technology economy by enhancing network infrastructure has been a priority of the Division of Technology since Frank became Michael Nutter’s official tech wonk. Maybe you’ve heard of Google. The opportunity to bring blazing fast broadband to Philadelphia seemed obvious. [SIGNUP]

The search engine giant is promising download speeds that are 100 times faster than the average American household Internet connection. Full-length HD-quality movies could be downloaded in moments. High-resolution radiology images could be shared between hospitals in a flash. The technology could usher in next-generation Web applications that we’ve not yet imagined.

Frank announced the city’s intentions to apply for Google’s pilot last week at Ignite Philly, a regular and well-known local technology lecture series that features innovators in the region. Google’s ultra-high speed infrastructure is seen as an opportunity to help support new innovation in the city’s growing information technology sector.

City officials have paid increasingly close attention to tech. At his budget address to City Council this month, Nutter announced an “unprecedented” five-year $120 million investment in city technology intended to cut departmental costs and improve city services. He also mentioned a new tech tax incentive pilot, a modest but community-welcomed plan to help attract technology companies to the city. As Frank has told me on a handful of occasions about city tech policy: “The Mayor gets it.”

Councilman-at-Large Bill Green gets it, too. He’s been working hand-in-hand with Frank on the city’s application. Each Wednesday for several weeks, the two leaders have convened with Division of Technology officials and a handful of tech academics and entrepreneurs. They all agree: Google would be a good get.

The administration is preparing an application promoting the city’s strengths, like wireless network assets left by Earthlink’s failed venture and the city’s history of “firsts,” like the University of Pennsylvania’s ENIAC, the world’s first computer, built in 1946.

It also plays off of institutional opportunities. It’s no secret that the country’s largest home Internet provider is based in a tall, shiny building in Center City. Whether or not Comcast would play ball with a competitor in its backyard is yet unseen. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has said that he and Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts are friendly. They pick each other’s brains each week.

Where would the city hope to build Google’s high-speed network? Likely in a stretch covering portions of Old City, Northern Liberties and Fishtown, neighborhoods where there’s a mix of startup tech firms and a demographic of low-income folks who’d benefit from increased access to the Internet. University City, with its strong research and development presence, is also on the table.

The Google broadband plans are something of a second act for Frank. Last August, Philadelphia applied for Federal broadband stimulus grants to fund network infrastructure around the city as a way of bolstering Philadelphia’s technology economy. With key network stakeholders, such as the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Housing Authority and dozens of nonprofits, Frank led a charge to submit three applications for funding that totalled $35 million.

Will we land a grant? The Feds received more than 2,000 applications for broadband stimulus projects — so many it had state officials vet each state’s applicants to help choose projects. The city applied for three grants, but only one of the city’s applications was vetted by the Commonwealth. There’s still a chance those other 2 projects could funding, but doubtful.

As for Google (which will announce its intentions sometime after the March 26 deadline for applications), competition could be even tighter. Shortly before Philadelphia announced its intention to apply for Google’s broadband pilot, CNN published a story about a Midwest applicant. “Topeka renames itself ‘Google, Kansas,'” read the headline. — Brian James Kirk

TECHNICALLY PHILLY is a news site that covers technology in the region. The site covers startups, investment, government policy, Comcast, social media and all that is Philadelphia tech. Read more at