The mayor of Duluth, Minn., threw himself into the ice-ringed waters of Lake Superior. The mayor of Sarasota, Fla., immersed himself in a tank filled with bonnethead sharks, simply to one-up him. The mayor of Wilmington, N.C., said that he would even jump out of an airplane — with a parachute, of course.
They are vying not so much for voters’ attention as Google’s attention. Google has said it plans to build — at no charge — an ultra-high-speed broadband network for 50,000 to 500,000 customers in one or more American cities.
And that offer has become catnip for city leaders, civic boosters and economic development types across the nation. America lags most other industrialized countries in high-speed Internet access. Even though the Obama administration last week unveiled a plan that would move the country forward, it will probably be snared in Congressional infighting for some time.
Meantime, Google’s offer of a network with speeds of one gigabit per second, or 100 times faster than many of today’s high-speed connections, could be a great selling point for a recession-plagued town. With hundreds of cities expected to apply before the deadline on Friday, city officials are using stunts in the hope their bids will stand out. And for those who put together a winning proposal, success may well be a swift path to re-election.
So maybe it is not so surprising that Bill Bunten, the mayor of Topeka, Kan., issued a proclamation renaming his city Google for the month of March.
In response, referencing fiber-optic cable, Duluth videotaped a mock press conference in which it said that every male born in the town would be named Google Fiber. The city enlisted Minnesota’s junior senator, the longtime comedian Al Franken, to make a humorous video supporting the bid.
Not to be outdone, a dairy in Madison, Wis., aided that city’s efforts by creating a “Google Fiber” ice cream flavor — vanilla ice cream with granola and M&Ms to match Google’s multicolored logo.
In Palo Alto, Calif., city employees danced outside the city hall to the tune of the disco-era hit “Y.M.C.A.,” unfurling a banner reading, “Palo Alto for Google Fiber.”
And Nevada City, a small California town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, threw a party and parade on March 14. The event opened with an odd sight: a group of decidedly counterculture-looking men banging on African drums in an attempt to ingratiate themselves — or at least their city — with a prominent name in corporate America.
“We had half an hour of drumming to call in the tribe,” said John Paul, the co-owner of a small Internet service provider in Nevada City, who helped organize the city’s bid. After trying and failing in its effort to receive federal stimulus funds to spruce up its broadband infrastructure, Nevada City sees the Google offer as a second chance, Mr. Paul said.
So far, no mayors have risked life or limb in their stunts. “They look pretty fierce but they are somewhat docile,” Sarasota Mayor Richard Clapp said of the bonnethead sharks, which eat crustaceans and small fish, not politicians.
Existing broadband providers, who face the costly task of delivering Internet access to millions of homes, not just a few thousand, have called the Google effort a publicity stunt that will do little to advance the nation’s broadband agenda. They are skeptical that the good will is going to last.
“Google will rue the day that it can’t meet the unrealistic expectations that it has set,” said Scott Cleland, the chairman of NetCompetition.org, an organization that represents many telecommunications companies and their industry associations. “The interesting thing will be to see how cities react when they are jilted at the altar.”