Looking to Get a Gig? You Don't Have to Wait for Google to Build it

Recent announcements by Google Fiber that it is expanding its ultra high speed Internet service to Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah, have left countless communities across the nation wondering how they can get on the gigabit bandwagon. Here in Lafayette, Louisiana, we decided not to wait for a Google do it for us, but rather to get it for ourselves.

Our ultra-fast network, LUS Fiber, was built by our citizen-owned utilities system and is currently offering speeds up to 1 gigabit per second to residential customers and 10 gigabits per second to business customers. While the creation of our network was no small feat -- every situation is different, and our entrepreneurial approach is one that likely will not be replicated -- it offers many valuable lessons to other cities that understand the importance of broadband and want to take action.

In 2003, just prior to my being sworn in as Lafayette's new mayor, the director of our city utility department approached me with the idea of building a next generation fiber optic network in order to provide our citizens and businesses with access to the world's leading technology. As the former chairman of the board of our local chamber of commerce, I knew we could do more with our fiber optic ring.

That fateful conversation led me to think of connectivity in a whole new way. As we researched other successful systems, we learned just how important broadband connectivity was to thriving city.

As the project took hold with our team, it was met by opposition from incumbent providers. They directed their resources to fighting our project. But the idea sparked something in our community. The citizens of Lafayette genuinely understood the value of being "connected." They likened broadband infrastructure to the electricity brought to them more than 100 years before by the same utility company.

Civic leaders and other enthusiasts volunteered their time to assist with awareness campaigns. They coordinated a large grassroots effort in support of the LUS Fiber initiative and worked tirelessly until we were able to move forward. We were even able to get both political parties to come together in support of the initiative. We learned first-hand what a motivated group of citizens can do. This lesson in particular is an important one for other communities to heed. Community buy-in and support was essential to our success, especially in the early stages. The hours spent on educating citizens about the project and its potential impact on the community continues to pay dividends today.

The citizens of Lafayette were right to fight for high-speed broadband access. In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released the National Broadband Plan with Goal #1 stating "to provide at least 100 million U.S. homes affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 Mbps" in 10 years time. At the time of its release, LUS Fiber had the capability to meet and exceed the 100 Mbps speed effectively making broadband access in Lafayette ten years ahead of the nation.

Because of our current fiber infrastructure, as well as Lafayette's excellent quality of life, businesses continue to choose Lafayette. We have attracted new businesses to our city and have experienced growth in our existing businesses and organizations -- many of them in high tech fields. We have started new organizations and new initiatives built around discovering innovative ways for our community to maximize the use of our next generation network.

Today, Lafayette is the fastest growing major city in the state. We have one of the fastest growing economies in America and the sixth fastest growing middle class. At less than 4 percent, there are only a handful of cities across the nation with lower unemployment. In fact, since LUS Fiber has been deployed to homes and businesses, Lafayette has maintained an unemployment rate well below the national average. Our retail sales are up, and our real estate market remains strong.

The path that led us to the deployment of a citywide gigabit network has been a challenging one. There have been ups and downs, but we have remained focused on what is best for our community. In keeping our focus, we have delivered the connectivity that our citizens demanded nearly a decade ago.

The strength of the Lafayette economy and the success of the LUS Fiber system are examples of the kind of positive impact an ultra-fast broadband network can have on a city. To all mayors planning to meet the FCC's newly issued Gigabit Challenge, know that the task is great but so too are the rewards.

Joey Durel is City-Parish President of Lafayette, Louisiana. He is scheduled to speak May 29 in Kansas City at a conference, "From Gigabit Envy to Gigabit Deployed," organized by the Fiber to the Home Council to help communities and local telecoms plan and build ultra high speed networks.