March 24 was Google Day in Evanston. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, second from left, and representatives of public and private entities pitched Evanston as the place for the Internet giant to install an ultra-high-speed network. Mayor Tisdahl was joined by Fourth Ward Alderman Donald Wilson, left, Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey, right, and Seventh Ward Alderman Jane Grover, second from right.

City staff and elected officials, along with community partners, gathered in the Civic Center’s fourth-floor Parasol Room on Wednesday afternoon, March 24, to highlight the City’s application to become a Google City. Free of the gimmicks, bells, whistles and publicity stunts that have characterized the efforts of numerous other cities in their quest to become a Google City, the presentations on March 24 instead highlighted a spirit of cooperation among the City and various local organizations. Perhaps the lack of shark tanks, subfreezing swims or other gimmicks contributed, but Chicago area broadcast media outlets sat out the festivities.

Google, the Internet company, earlier this year announced that it intended to “build and test ultra-high speed broadband networks in one or more trial locations across the country” according to Google’s website. The new network is expected “to deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today…” Google sought Requests for Information (RFIs) from all interested communities of between 50,000 and 500,000 people on or before March 26, 2010.

Google’s announcement has caused a frenzy of enthusiasm across the country, and more than 300 communities are expected to complete RFIs, says Eric Palmer, the City’s Community Information Coordinator.

The New York Times and other media outlets have reported the lengths to which some communities have gone to publicize their interest in becoming Google cities, including mayoral plunges into freezing water or shark-filled tanks, renaming a city “Google” for March and promises to name every new male baby “Google Fiber.” Evanston took a different approach.

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl opened Google Day by telling attendees and viewers that if they came expecting her to jump in the lake or swim with sharks they would be disappointed, because “that’s not happening.”

Instead the presentation focused on collaboration between the City and community interests, along with the benefits that ultra-high speed Internet would provide for students, residents and businesses within the City. Representatives from Northwestern University, NorthShore University Healthcare System (Evanston Hospital), School Districts 65 and 202, the Chamber of Commerce and the Technology Incubator all joined the City in making a case for Evanston.

The message sent to Google was of a spirit of cooperation within the City, showing Google that so many entities were willing to work together to bring faster service to Evanston. Practicality and public benefit were the themes, rather than pizzazz and publicity stunts.

The reasons for the no-frills approach went beyond a belief that Google would not likely be swayed by shark tanks and finger sandwiches. The City “just cut $9.5 million from the budget and eliminated 50 jobs. I could not in good conscious spend more” on a Google Day presentation, said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.

All told, Mr. Bobkiewicz said, the City has spent about $2,000 purchasing banners, sticker sand hats for the campaign. (The total does not include staff time.)

Nevertheless, Mr. Bobkiewicz expressed disappointment at the lack of broadcast media coverage.  “I hoped they would be here,” he said.

Mr. Palmer said that coverage of the new health care bill and efforts to persuade state attorney general Lisa Madigan to file suit to exclude Illinois from the bill’s provision drew television cameras away from Evanston. Both Mr. Bobkiewicz and Mr. Palmer expressed hope that video of the event, offered by the City, would be picked up by news organizations.

Mr. Palmer said it did not make sense to spend more or dream up elaborate gimmicks, because the RFI process is “a crapshoot.” Google’s selection process is virtually unknowable, he said.

Google’s website explains their criteria as follows:

“Above all, we’re interested in deploying our network efficiently and quickly, and are hoping to identify interested communities that will work with us to achieve this goal. We also want to work with a community where we can bring significant benefits to residents and develop useful proofs-of-concept that can have a broader impact. For example, we’re looking for opportunities to experiment with deployment techniques that can inform and accelerate broadband deployment elsewhere as well. To that end, we’ll use our RFI to identify interested communities and to assess local factors that will impact the efficiency and speed of our deployment, such as the level of community support, local resources, weather conditions, approved construction methods and local regulatory issues. We will also take into account broadband availability and speeds that are already offered to users within a community. The RFI is a first step – we plan to consult with local government organizations, as well as conduct site visits and meet with local officials, before announcing our final decisions.”

Shark kisses, frostbitten extremities and dozens of children with really bad names are not mentioned. 

It is anticipated that Google’s project would provide an ultra-high speed fiber connection to all Evanston homes.

Benefits of ultra-high speed service connecting the entire City, according to presenters, would range from more accurate and timely medical diagnoses to real-time traffic and even pothole alerts.

Speakers on the City’s video talked about real time traffic and weather updates available to all residents, arrival times for busses trains and taxis, access for the disabled to meetings via video conferencing, water quality monitoring, recreation updates, police video interaction with hospitals in emergencies, all available with faster internet.

Eric Witherspoon, Superintendent of Evanston Township High School, called the project “an opportunity for us to be to model the kind of learning that can take place in the 21st century.”

The high school’s video detailed limits currently placed upon students and teachers by the lower bandwidth now available. A fiber cable currently provides a 15 megabyte connection, but that causes delays and stops and starts during presentations at times.

ETHS Science teacher Steven Speight said, “With the capacity we have it’s really iffy… it’ll be choppy, or we’ll wait for it to catch… and you lose [student interest].” Google’s fiber network, more than six times as fast at 1 GB, would allow teachers to offer full access to all resources available on the Internet. Students would also have access at home, adding to the educational benefits.

Hardy Murphy, Superintendent of District 65, brought a classroom’s worth of Chute Eagles with him to demonstrate the “young, inquisitive minds” full of “curiosity and imagination” that would benefit from the Google proposal.

“This application is about the children of Evanston,” Dr. Murphy said, “and we hope that it is successful.” Better, faster Internet will operate to enhance teaching and learning in Evanston according to the District 65 video, he added.

Evanston Hospital’s presentation focused on the interaction between the hospital and its patients.

Their video stated that the hospital’s “electronic medical record technology is one of the most advanced in the world,” but “unfortunately, many… residents cannot access their electronic medical record” due to “slow, expensive or unreliable” Internet connections.

The Google connection would allow doctors and patients to access large files like CT scans and MRIs almost instantaneously, and allow better communications between doctors and specialists and doctors and patients. Remote consultation and diagnoses would be possible. In conclusion, speakers on the video said, “Faster Internet will help save lives.”

Jonathan Perman, executive director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce said that the questions asked by prospective tenants have changed over the last 10 years. While once tenants asked about parking, water pressure, transportation, etc., now the first question is nearly always, “Does the building have fast, reliable Internet access?” The Google proposal, he said, would provide the best environment for entrepreneurship. “We don’t believe that Evanston should or can afford to sit still,” he added.

The videos prepared by Northwestern, Evanston Hospital, the School Districts and two by the City can be seen on the City’s YouTube channel, accessible from the City of Evanston website.

According to the FAQ section on Google’s website, Google expects to announce a decision in 2010. The price they expect to charge for the service “has not yet been determined, but we intend to offer service at a competitive price.” Evanston, along with more than 300 other communities, can now only sit and wait.