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If Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) wanted to stir up public interest in broadband Internet connectivity when it announced a small-scale fiber-optic network project, then Google got what it wanted. Cities across America are coming to Google, hat in hand, to prove themselves worthy of the company's attention.
The most extreme example might be the capital of Kansas. Topeka will be known as "Google, Kansas: The capital of fiber optics" in March, thanks to an official proclamation by mayor Bill Bunten. Remember though, this is a town that renamed itself "ToPikachu" for a day when Nintendo (OTC BB: NTDOY.PK) launched a Pokemon game within city limits back in 1998.
City councils, citizen brigades, and oddball activists are everywhere. Committed candidates include small fry like Topeka and Greensboro, NC; mid-size college towns like Austin, Texas, and Gainesville, Fla.; and even metropolises such as Seattle, Wash., and New Orleans, La. Their platforms range from "look what we can do for Google" to "look what Google can do for us," and everything in between. Some committees even vow to build their own municipal fiber-optic networks if Google doesn't come through for them.
Google says that the purpose of building out a relatively smallish network of approximately 500,000 gigabit-connected homes is to learn more about networking. The company hopes to find innovative uses for a true "information superhighway," along with new ways to build and run the networks cheaper, faster, and better. It will allow third-party service providers to resell Google's connections and share lessons learned with the world. And that is the key takeaway from the whole project: Google wants a faster and more ubiquitous Internet for everybody.
It doesn't really matter to Google whether you surf the bit-waves through the lines of AT&T (NYSE: T ) , Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) , or ClearWire (Nasdaq: CLWR ) . An Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone is just as kosher for Google's purposes as a Google Android handset, a Hewlett-Packard laptop, or a connected Blu-ray player by Panasonic or Sony. And that's the philosophy I see behind the fiber optics buildout, too: Turn up the fire under service providers, local governments, and federal authorities to whip the Internet into shape. Consider this a well-funded publicity stunt that ultimately benefits network infrastructure everywhere.
Whether or not Google makes money from subscription fees and city-funded subsidies for this project, the real payoff will come indirectly and years later. More network traffic means more eyeballs connected to ad-clicking fingers. That also happens to fit Google's corporate mission to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."
Whoever gets this network will only be the first of many large broadband rollouts in the coming years. Is Google the best vehicle for riding that wave, or should we instead stock up on fiber-optic equipment makers like JDS Uniphase (Nasdaq: JDSU ) ? Share your thinking in the comments below.