(Oregonian (Portland, OR) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 22--When Google held a national competition four years ago to choose a city where the company would build its first super-fast fiber-optic network, communities across the country fell all over themselves trying to win the company's attention.
Portlanders got into the act with videos lauding the city's technological prowess, with stunts aiming to set world records and, most famously, with a beer -- Hopworks' Gigabit IPA -- with a label decorated in Google's signature color scheme.
When Google chose Kansas City, Portland looked like just another sad-sack loser among the 1,100 cities who sought -- but didn't get -- the company's attention.
Quietly, though, city officials kept talking to the company. They were trying to understand what Google might want and went about setting it in motion -- establishing a broadband plan and beginning the process of cataloging what existing tools Google, or another company, might use to build a local network.
"Google's approach is you need to do all these things to be broadband friendly. So we started down that path," said Mary Beth Henry, director of Portland's office for community technology.
That work paid off last August, when Google asked for a secret meeting with Portland Mayor Charlie Hales. Behind closed doors, in October, the city began working with Google on a broadband franchise agreement that would open the door for Google Fiber to expand its network to Portland.
This week, Google announced it wants to expand its Google Fiber network to Portland and five nearby suburbs, beginning service as early as next year as part of a major expansion of its network to as many as nine additional metro areas.
The news could validate more than a decade of work city leaders have put into attracting another communications company to the market, someone to compete with the local phone and cable franchises, now owned by CenturyLink and Comcast.
But Google isn't making any promises. The company says it's still evaluating Portland's suitability.
"Building a brand-new fiber-optic network is a really hard job," said Kevin Lo, Google Fiber's general manager. It's "enormously disruptive to a community that's not ready for it."
Google wants help mapping and permitting its new network, and creating an inventory of utility poles and other resources that could contain the cost of building the network and reduce the need to dig up streets.
The company says it hopes to make a decision on whether to build in Portland late this year. Service could begin in some areas in 2015
Cable companies including Comcast have established a virtual monopoly on top-tier Internet services by leveraging their existing cable networks, and their cable TV subscriber base, to build a dominant market position.
Few prospective rivals can afford the hundreds of millions of dollars required to build a competitive network in even one metro area -- and even if they did spend that money, they'd have to scrap with the incumbents for subscribers.
With $60 billion in the bank, Google is among those few who can afford to compete. And while it doubtlessly hopes to profit from its Internet and cable TV services, the company says its real goal is to enable more online services that can take advantage of higher bandwidth speeds.
That, in turn, could generate more profits from Google's main business -- online advertising.
By enlisting mayors from across the region in Wednesday's announcement, and stoking popular interest for its service, Google has created enormous pressure on local governments to deliver on promises to meet its needs.
Among the first steps will be crafting that broadband franchise agreement. Henry said it's much more complex than an ordinary cable TV franchise and requires that Portland and Google agree on what is required from each to make the new service work.
"We have been working on it and we're still working on it, but we're very hopeful," she said. "We are treading on new ground, trying to allow the innovation that something like this will bring to Portland."
Adding to the complexity: Portland must coordinate work across the city's complex bureau systems to coordinate franchise agreements, permitting and road work.
"We'll have an inter-bureau team of the primary agencies that will be working on it," Henry said.
Similarly, regional mayors are putting together a working group to coordinate efforts among the six cities Google is considering -- Portland, Beaverton, Hillsboro, Gresham, Lake Oswego and Tigard.
"This is just the beginning of the work," Henry said.
-- Mike Rogoway; twitter: @rogoway; 503-294-7699
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