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Internet at warp speed

It could happen here.

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Imagine if you could download an entire movie in less than five minutes. What would it be like if doctors and surgeons at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences could video-conference with the best medical professionals in the world, sharing everything from expertise to MRI images? How much easier would your life be if your Internet connection moved at a speed 100 times what it is now? Well, Little Rock may find out if city officials, broadband advocates and business leaders have their way.

Google, the Internet giant, is looking to build and test super high-speed broadband networks in select cities and communities across the country. The search engine and cloud-computing company is asking for applications from municipalities, community organizations and average citizens to find the perfect communities to test out their one gigabit per second, fiber optic network, and Little Rock might be a fit.

“Right now, looking at the application, we haven't seen one of those ‘gotcha items,' that might hold us back,” says Randy Foshee, the information technology director for the city of Little Rock. “Sometimes when you look at grants or other applications, you'll see certain hurdles, whether it's matching funds or something like that. We haven't seen any hurdles like that so far. So, we're really optimistic that we're going to be able to submit a good application.”

Foshee says landing the network is an exciting possibility but the competition will be stiff.

“I don't know who we're competing with,” he says. “There are probably a large number of cities out there competing for this, so it may be like winning the lottery if you get it. If we were awarded and able to deploy this type of a network, though, it would be hugely beneficial to our economy. Because then you have somebody that can compete and give good prices to our businesses that use those higher bandwidth applications out there.”

Those in the business community agree. Gary Newton, executive vice president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, says it's hard to explain, or even fathom, the possibilities of such a high-speed network.

“It's like if you tried to explain the Internet to someone 20 years ago,” Newton says. “They could never have fathomed what you were talking about. I think this is really the same way. It's hard to fathom what may be possible, but it will create a climate of innovation, I think. If you're creating a capacity for [internet-based] applications that have yet to be created, that could make this area a hotbed for those creators.”

Little Rock isn't the only place in Arkansas that would qualify. Google says it's looking for “interested communities” with a population between 50,000 and 500,000. They'll also be looking at other factors including community support, local resources, weather conditions, approved construction methods and local regulatory issues.

Current broadband availability will also be taken into account, and that's an area where a lot of Arkansas communities are lacking. According to Sam Walls, president of Connect Arkansas, a group working to support the development of broadband access throughout the state, Arkansas ranks 48th in the U.S. when it comes to broadband connectivity. The natural state ranks 47th in the percentage of population that is online.

“Our initial research showed us some pretty disturbing numbers,” Walls says. “Twenty nine percent of Arkansans have never used the internet. Even if broadband internet was affordable and made available to every home, 30 percent of respondents said they still would not subscribe to it. So there's a large percentage of our population that is unable or unwilling to utilize this technology. And that is reflected in our educational achievement and economic development.”

That's why, he says, Connect Arkansas is willing to assist anyone who wants to “try to take advantage of this particular opportunity with Google.”

Foshee says there are still some unknowns, like whether Google will use their own fiber optic cables to build the network or use those already in place. Companies like AT&T and Windstream already have fiberoptic cables inside the city. But he remains optimistic.

“I think Little Rock is a perfect fit for it and if I could talk to Google I would tell them that we are the city that needs this,” he says.

“Google has really presented this in a very democratic way,” Newton says. “So I think it's up to all Arkansans, no matter their level of technological expertise, to jump in on this and say what it would mean to them personally, their business, their children and grandchildren. And hopefully, collectively, we'll have a pretty big impact.”

The deadline for applications is March 26. More information about the rules can be found at http://www.google.com/appserve/fiberrfi/

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