Report: Google Fiber Heading to Austin as Cities Race to Boost Web Speeds

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Julie Denesha / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The Google Fiber Rabbit sits in the showroom area of Fiber Space, part of Google Fiber's offices, in Kansas City, Mo., on Nov. 27, 2012

America’s weirdest city is about to get wired.

Google Fiber is heading to Austin, according to multiple reports. If true, Austin, home of the South by Southwest festival, will become the largest city to receive Google’s superfast, 1-gigabit Internet-and-TV service after Google Fiber’s initial launch in Kansas City, Mo., last year. In a tantalizing clue, Google Fiber’s news website briefly flashed a message over the weekend reading: “Google Fiber’s Next Stop: Austin, Texas.” Google may have inadvertently managed to scoop its own announcement, because the message was quickly removed.

“It’s no longer a question,” Austin-based blogger Stacey Higginbotham, a senior writer for GigaOm, wrote on Saturday. “Google is bringing its Google Fiber network to Austin. I’ve confirmed it with sources, and the brief publication of a post in the middle of the night by Google should assuage anyone else’s doubts.”

Google Fiber’s arrival in Austin would be the clearest signal yet that the tech giant is serious about becoming an Internet-service provider — and isn’t merely out to shame existing broadband giants with its lightning-fast service. In Austin, Google Fiber would compete with the nation’s second largest cable company, Time Warner Cable, which dominates the Austin market. (TIME parent Time Warner spun off the cable giant in 2009.) Last month, Google announced that it is expanding the service to the Kansas City suburb of Olathe.

“I don’t think this should surprise anyone because Google’s leadership has been saying that this is not just a science experiment,” says Blair Levin, a former senior Federal Communications Commission official who led the U.S. National Broadband Plan. “It’s looking more and more like they want to make this a real business, and that should excite everyone.”

(MORE: Google Fiber Expanding Superfast Internet Service to Olathe, Kans.)

Technology experts, business leaders and government officials agree that faster Internet speeds will help boost the U.S. economy. Earlier this year, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski called for at least 1-gigabit broadband community in each of the 50 states by 2015. “American economic history teaches a clear lesson about infrastructure,” Genachowski said. “If we build it, innovation will come. The U.S. needs a critical mass of gigabit communities nationwide so that innovators can develop next-generation applications and services that will drive economic growth and global competitiveness.”

Cities across the U.S. are racing to meet Genachowski’s Gigabit City Challenge. Seattle and Chicago are working with a company called Gigabit Squared and a project called Gig.U to bring superfast Internet service to their citizens, in conjunction with local universities. Broadband provider is working through regulatory hurdles to bring gigabit speeds to San Francisco. And the Tennessee cities of Chattanooga and Bristol have already built gigabit networks. New York City, meanwhile, recently announced a pilot program with Verizon to speed the deployment of fiber-optic cable using “microtrenching” within the edges of city sidewalks.

Gig.U is an Aspen Institute project led by Levin that consists of more than 30 universities working to bring gigabit service to their institutions and surrounding communities. “Bandwidth-delivered goods and services will drive the lion’s share of the growth, and job growth, in the global economy,” says Levin. “The greatest economic opportunities involve using broadband to solve some of our biggest challenges, such as delivering high-quality education and health services.”

(MORE: Google Fiber Issues Public Challenge: Get Up to Speed!)

On Friday, Google sent out a cryptic invitation to a joint event with Austin city officials on Tuesday morning. The company said the announcement “will have a positive impact on Austinites and the future of the city.” Google anticipates “more than 100 community leaders and elected officials to be in attendance to celebrate this announcement.” Asked whether the event relates to Google Fiber, a Google spokesperson was tight-lipped, telling TIME that the company doesn’t comment on “rumor and speculation.”

After the announcement went out, reporters at KVUE, the local ABC affiliate, tapped their City of Austin sources and became the first outlet to confirm the Google Fiber news. “Multiple City of Austin sources confirm to KVUE that we will be next on the list,” KVUE’s Kris Betts reported during the station’s Friday-evening broadcast. In addition to confirming the news with city officials, KVUE’s eagle-eyed reporters spotted an interesting offering on the Kansas City Google Fiber channel page: the Longhorn Network, which broadcasts University of Texas at Austin sporting events.

Google says its fiber-to-the-home product provides customers with broadband-Internet speeds of 1 gigabit per second — roughly 100 times faster than the average U.S. connection — as well as crystal-clear television service. In Kansas City, Google offers residents seven years of free Internet service at current broadband speeds, after a $300 installation fee. Superfast 1-gigabit Internet service costs $70 per month, and the top bundle, which includes Google’s TV service, costs $120 per month. (The $300 installation fee is waived for the latter two offerings.)

For years, Google watchers have speculated that the company might get into the business of providing broadband service — especially after it bought up miles of so-called dark fiber, the unused fiber-optic cable left dormant by the dotcom crash. In January, Google announced plans to provide free wi-fi in the Chelsea neighborhood surrounding its mammoth New York City headquarters, which also happens to be one of the most important telecom co-location and peering centers on the East Coast. The search giant also offers free wi-fi in its home city of Mountain View, Calif.

(MORE: Google Brings Free Public Wi-Fi to Its New York City Neighborhood)

But taking on broadband giants like Comcast and Time Warner Cable is a tall order, because those companies dominate most U.S. markets. When Google Fiber was announced, many observers believed the company’s goal would be to shame those giants into improving their offerings, by demonstrating that vastly faster broadband service is possible in the U.S. Improving U.S. broadband speed and penetration is important for Google, because the more people who use broadband Internet, at faster speeds, the more Google searches get executed, which translates into more revenue for the company. With Google Fiber’s impending arrival in Austin, the project is increasingly looking like a real business for the company, and not just a shaming exercise.

Since Google launched the Kansas City fiber rollout, the company has been touting the emergence of “Silicon Prairie.” The company points to initiatives like Kansas City Startup Village, and new businesses are already beginning to blossom. One prominent Colorado-based venture capitalist even bought a house in a Google Fiber–equipped neighborhood — and then launched a competition for entrepreneurs to live there rent-free. “The whole start-up thing in Kansas City is like this huge growing beast,” local Web developer Ben Barreth recently told the Associated Press. “It’s got this crazy momentum.”

For its part, Austin already boasts a thriving tech ecosystem it calls Silicon Hills. Austin, which is home to one of the largest universities in Texas and its Austin Technology Incubator, was reportedly on the short list to be the first municipality to receive Google Fiber. Major tech companies with offices in Austin include Apple, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Facebook and Google itself. And of course, PC giant Dell is headquartered in nearby Round Rock, Texas. Austin’s climate, music scene and overall quality of life have also made it an attractive location for start-up entrepreneurs. Needless to say, if Google Fiber arrives in Austin, the city’s tech scene could go into hyperdrive.