Merced County leaders say they want to be known for more than foreclosures and unemployment -- and they think Google's plan to develop an ultra-fast Internet network could be just the ticket.
"We have an opportunity to bring something to the community that, at some point, could be transformational, and that's exciting," said Mark Hendrickson, director of Merced County's Department of Commerce, Aviation and Economic Development.
The county hosted about 25 people -- most representing local governments -- in a conference room at Castle Commerce Center on Friday to discuss an application to become a test site in Google's fiber initiative.
Google announced in February that it would build and test ultra-high-speed broadband networks in trial communities around the U.S. The company encouraged local government agencies and private citizens to apply. The application period ends March 26.
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There's plenty of national competition for the network, which Google promises will provide Internet speeds 100 times faster than what most users have access to today.
Some cities are staging publicity stunts to grab Google's attention -- Modesto activists recently hung a 45-foot banner across the city's downtown arch, and Topeka, Kan., temporarily renamed itself after the Internet company.
There haven't yet been any similar grand gestures of support in Merced, but people attending Friday's meeting said they planned to encourage acquaintances to fill out the application form.
Rodney LaSalle, an organizer of the booster group Merced Ahead, said its members are excited about the local effort.
"We're getting fantastic reaction to this," he said.
The group agreed to let Merced County act as the lead agency on the joint application, which includes support from the city of Merced, UC Merced, Merced College and local school districts.
Participants at Friday's meeting envisioned a time when video technology could be used to allow doctors to conduct examinations of patients at home, or provide extra services to special education students at county schools.
The discussion was encouraging for Jennifer Mockus, regional operations director for Central California Alliance for Health. Her employer conducts weekly video conferences between its sites in Merced, Monterey and Santa Cruz, and faster Internet access could improve communication, she said.
"Telephone meetings are fine for less interactive discussions, but if you really want to involve all of your staff, having high-speed service would be great," Mockus said. "We have databases for different aspects of our work, and Google could give us faster access to that data. I'm definitely pleased with the service here, but we can get an improved product that would help you and your work in delivering health care services."
Google is asking for proposals from areas with a population between 50,000 and 500,000. Merced's application will include the entire county.
"We've faced a number of challenges, and this is a chance to show Google and others that Merced County is also a place of opportunity," Hendrickson said. "The county has much to offer, and can help Google realize their goal."
Nominations may be made online at http://www.google.com/appserve/fiberrfi
Online content editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at (209) 385-2464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.