It's not Topeka, Kan., anymore. At least it wasn't for the month of March. Under a formal proclamation issued by Mayor Bill Bunten, the capital of the Sunflower State became known as Google, Kan. - "the capital city of fiber optics."
Topeka's temporary moniker was perhaps the most offbeat publicity stunt among several U.S. cities that were angling for a spot in Google's new Fiber for Communities program. Announced in February, the Web search giant planned to pick one or more cities for its pilot project, offering an ultra-high speed, 1 GB per second network at a "competitive price." The experiment had citizens salivating at the thought of Internet speeds 100 times faster than what's available in average American households.
The idea of Topeka's name change "came pretty much out of the blue," Bunten said. "Everybody thought it was a fun idea, so we just went forward with it."
Cities had until March 26 to express their interest in Google's fiber-optic broadband test. According to Google, the winning city or cities will be announced "some time this year."
Bunten wasn't fighting for Google's attention for his own benefit. He wants faster connections in Topeka to grow jobs and show younger generations it's more than "a good place to grow potatoes," which is what the city's name means in indigenous languages.
Tech-savvy residents responded in a big way. A group on Facebook called Bring Google's Fiber Experiment to Topeka! quickly grew to 11,000 members.
"Imagine Topeka as a technology hotspot. A place where citizens, schools and businesses have unparalleled access to an Internet connection so powerful they're able to make daily life more efficient, just by residing here," reads the group's description. "Where, instead of waiting minutes or hours for a file to download or a video to load, it would occur in seconds, allowing technology to take us places we've never even imagined before. With Google's fiber experiment, this is all completely possible."
Bunten, however, isn't the social networking type. "I don't really like to use Facebook or Twitter," he said. "I'd rather just pick up the phone and talk to someone."
Topeka's formal proclamation notes: "Google's commitment to innovation depends on everyone being comfortable sharing ideas and opinions." The name-change idea certainly reflects that concept. Bunten said when he brought it up to the City Council meeting, no one objected.
For Topeka, a temporary name change to keep up with the times is nothing new. In the late 1990s, Bunten said, the city changed its name to "ToPikachu," a shout-out to Pikachu, the yellow anime character from the Pokémon franchise. Bunten wasn't mayor at the time, but he still laughs at the story.
"Somebody said, 'They renamed the city so it sounded like a sneeze,'" he said. "If you can't have fun with things, that's too bad."
When it comes to how far states will go for a supersonic fiber-optic network, it has become a battle of one-upmanship, but all in good fun. After Topeka's name change, officials in Duluth, Minn., fired back with a YouTube video spoof of a press conference, proclaiming that henceforth every firstborn male in the city will be named Google Fiber and every firstborn female Googlette Fiber.
"Please remember that just because Topeka was the first to make an obnoxious symbolic gesture to suck up to the good folks there at Google, doesn't mean that we can't suck up even more," a fictional mayor says in the spoof. "Cast aside all dignity and self-respect because that is what it's going to take if we are going to beat the good folks of Topeka, Kan. - I mean, Google, Kan."
Another video shows the real mayor of Duluth, Don Ness, leaping into icy Lake Superior.
"I've laid down the gauntlet," he boasted after emerging from the lake, a drenched white T-shirt clinging to his frame. "All right, you other mayors: You want Google Fiber, you jump in Lake Superior."
At press time, Sarasota, Fla., had jumped into the mix. In a move from Topeka's playbook, the coastal city changed the name of its City Island to Google Island. Campaigners took shots at Topeka's boring landscape and Duluth's freezing weather in their YouTube video, which contrasts those dreary images with tropical vistas of Sarasota.
These examples, while easily dismissed as silly publicity stunts, underscore the importance of Google's project. And it may be that the Google decision-makers find themselves swayed by such antics. The company symbolically changed its name to "Topeka" on April Fools' Day.