Palo Alto's dream of a citywide ultra-high-speed broadband network will soon take shape on a smaller scale just beyond the city's borders, thanks to a pilot project Google plans to unveil on Stanford University campus early next year.
The Mountain-view based tech giant plans to construct a fiber network for about 850 homes leased by Stanford faculty and staff. The network, once built, would enable users to connect to the Internet at speeds up to 1 gigabit per second, which the company says is "more than 100 times faster than what most people have access to today."
The project would be a smaller version of the highly anticipated Google Fiber project, which the company announced in February to great fanfare. Palo Alto is one of hundreds of cities nationwide that yearns to be selected by Google for this project, which would give every household and business in the city high-speed Internet access.
In May, Palo Alto leaders danced in front of City Hall and displayed a giant "Palo Alto for Google Fiber" sign in front of a camera in hopes of increasing the city's odds of getting chosen. Other cities went even further. The mayor of Duluth, Minn., jumped into Lake Superior to get Google's attention, while Topeka, Kansas, briefly changed its name to Google, Kansas.
Stanford appears to have won the early prize largely because of its reputation for high-tech ingenuity and its proximity to Google's Mountain View campus. The company also praised, in its statement, Stanford's "openness to us experimenting with new fiber technologies on its streets."
"The layout of the residential neighborhoods and small number of homes make it a good fit for a beta deployment," the company's statement said. "And its location -- just a few miles up the road from Google -- will make it easier for our engineers to monitor progress."
Palo Alto already has a "dark fiber" network that serves some of the city's largest business customers and that generates about $2 million in annual revenues. City officials have been trying for several years to expand the system to all residents -- a project they termed "fiber to the premises."
The project died last year after the consortium of technology firms the city has been negotiating with to expand the network withdrew from consideration because of inadequate financing.
While the Stanford project would bring Palo Alto tantalizingly close to its dream of fiber for the masses, it is unlikely to boost the city's standings in the nationwide race for Google Fiber. Google spokesman Dan Martin said in an e-mail that the pilot project at Stanford "is completely separate from our community selection process for Google Fiber."
Martin said the company plans to make an announcement about the Google Fiber search later this year.
The company plans to start building the Stanford network in the first quarter of 2011, said James Sweeney, who serves as president of the Stanford Campus Residential Leaseholders. Sweeney, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford, said the response from residents in the pilot area has been largely enthusiastic, though several residents questioned whether they'd use the new service.
Google officials approached Stanford about the project in late summer and immediately sparked great interest from the Stanford community. Not a single board member of the leaseholder group spoke up against participating in the project, Sweeney said.
Google officials also discussed the project with Stanford residents at a community meeting last Thursday.
Sweeney said Google plans to install a termination point and a dedicated fiber at each home and give each household the option of connecting to the fiber network. Those who opt in would be charged $250 for installation, or $50 if they choose to receive a self-install kit. They would then receive free ultra-high-speed Internet access for a year, after which time Google would charge a rate that has yet to be determined.
Sweeney, who also serves as director of the university's Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, is among the enthusiasts. The network, he said, would greatly enhance the residents' ability to engage in cloud computing and allow them to connect to supercomputers, perform complex energy modeling and back up data faster and easier than ever before.
"I just like the sense of us being at the cutting edge," Sweeney said.