Philly Is “Gigabit City” (with or without Google)

While cities wait to hear Google gigabit fiber winners, next-gen broadband plans forge ahead in Philly

Last week, Google thanked the 1,100 applicants who entered its Google Fiber for Communities contest, an initiative to test high-speed, next generation broadband — known as ‘gigabit’ fiber — that is up to 100 times faster than current average household Internet connections. As we’ve written in this column before, Google plans to wire between 50,000 and a half-million households with gigabit, an experiment which could have broad implications for technological innovation and national broadband policy.

The thank-you was but a tease for Philly’s technology community, which, as part of the City’s application to the Google Fiber for Communities contest, created “Gigabit City,” a repository where folks brainstorm specific projects that may be possible with gigabit technology. Like everyone else, they’ll have to wait until Google announces the winners in the fall, but City of Philadelphia Chief Technology Officer Allan Frank isn’t sitting around. He’s turned the city’s application into an opportunity to engage Philadelphia around next-generation broadband policy.

In the process, he’s been able to push the city’s telecommunication heavies  — Comcast and Verizon — to consider Philadelphia’s future.

When the Division of Technology first decided to apply for Google’s Gigabit Challenge, Frank approached Comcast and Verizon about the plans, he told Technically Philly in an interview last week.

“Let’s take Google aside,” Frank recalls telling the telcos. “We have a broad strategy for the city—how we create a tech ecosystem. What role can and should the city play in fostering and encouraging a broadband-based high-speed urban model that doesn’t exist anywhere else?” he asked.

So, he asked the companies — which often test new technology in single markets in beta mode before expanding across the country — to start those testing that new technology right here in Philadelphia. “When the world picks up a newspaper, this region should be the first place to experiment with new technology,” Frank said. “[Comcast and Verizon] said ‘absolutely.'”

A gentleman’s agreement from the two telecoms doesn’t fully answer an oft-asked question, one that’s made rounds since Google first announced the Gigabit contest: whether or not the telecoms would play ball with a potential broadband competitor. After all, when Comcast filed controversial comments with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration about Philadelphia’s broadband stimulus applications last year, local broadband advocates said the motion was a challenge to potential federally-funded competition.

Frank and other pundits have guessed that Google isn’t trying to enter the broadband market. “This wasn’t a competitive situation as much as a marketing and science experiment. It was about starting a national conversation about the democratization of speed,” Frank said.

But the agreement sheds light on Comcast and Verizon’s local policy. Getting involved with and encouraging Philadelphia’s technology community is something they’re considering. It’s a policy that we’d be thrilled to see executed.

The future of Philadelphia’s network infrastructure isn’t just being theorized in the private sector.

Frank says that as part of the Planning Commission’s Philadelphia 2035 plan — the first comprehensive plan undertaken in 50 years — technology policy is playing a role. Frank serves on a working committee to remind city planners that the city’s network infrastructure is an important part of Philadelphia’s built environment. And Frank says he’s already investing in next-generation technology in the city, changing out network switches — proverbial crossroads of virtual networks that connect sectors of devices — for faster gigabit switches.

“To the world out there, Philly will become Gigabit City,” Frank said. “We drive to building a new economy here. And that’s what this is all about. It’s not Google.”