For the ultra-fast broadband network Google wants to build in some lucky U.S. city, lots of small trenches will have to be dug for fiber optic cables. That led to a strange scene at Google on a recent Friday: basically a drag race between five ditch-digging machines.
The April 16 competition, which tore up a Google parking lot at 1206 Charleston Road, was organized by Google employees who not only thought it was the best way to select a "micro trenching" machine, but also to catalyze innovation among the manufacturers of such equipment.
The scene was complete with a checkered flag, a camera crew and a winner's podium. Five different companies showed up to put their equipment to the test.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin looked on as the strange event began on a painted course about equal to the width of a soccer field. Earplugs were passed out to the crowd of onlookers, mostly Google employees. Crews of workers wearing hardhats manned the five machines, each one capable of plunging a saw blade into the asphalt to create a ditch a little more than an inch wide -- just big enough for fiber optic network cables.
"Are we ready to do this or what?" cried Google global infrastructure team member Christine Bennett through a megaphone. "OK, on your marks, get set, go!"
After the roar of asphalt grinding commenced, it took about 10 minutes for the first machine to dig its way to the end of the course. The winner was the "Shark Cutter" from BSE Inc., pushed by a Bobcat bulldozer and leaving a pile of pebbles in its wake. It was closely followed by the professional-looking "Ditch Witch" machine, which left behind the cleanest cut thanks to a large vacuum hose attachment. Most of the others were much farther behind, some taking more than 20 minutes to finish the course.
Once the dust settled it was clear that some machines did the job quicker, some left more of a mess and some dug deeper or wider ditches than others.
For fun, three top finishers were declared and given trophies. Standing at the top of a wooden podium was Corey Smith of Ditch Witch, who was handed some flowers and got a hug from Google project manager Minnie Ingersoll. In second place was Randy Lord, president and CEO of Broadband Service Group, Inc, for its Seacore 800 machine. Taking a third place trophy was Dean Hughes, chief operating officer for BSE, which ran the messy but fast Shark Cutter.
The real prize -- which has yet to be awarded -- is a contract with Google to help lay the groundwork for an ultra fast broadband network somewhere in the U.S. In a competition which drew publicity stunts from city officials across the U.S., Google received 160,000 responses from individuals who wanted the network in their community.
Google hopes to "catalyze" innovation in every aspect of broadband technology, including micro-trenching equipment. As one Google employee said Friday, many people don't realize that Google isn't just an Internet company -- it's also an "infrastructure company."
Driving the "Google fiber" project is Google's desire for open access to the Internet. Ingersoll said that in terms of "cost, penetration and speed" of Internet service, "The U.S. is 19th in the world and falling. We feel we need to catalyze better and faster Internet."