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Google’s announcement that they will build an ultra-high-speed broadband network for 50,000 to 500,000 customers in one or more American cities has set off a circus-like atmosphere among city mayors and administrators…and got me wondering exactly when an award-based program becomes a contest, and what that means from a legal standpoint.

From Google’s perspective this is positioned as simply a request for information (RFI), as you might put out when seeking your next agency.  But have you ever had an agency CEO jump into a tank of sharks to win your bid?  Why are mayors going so far overboard to demonstrate their enthusiasm, especially when Google makes no claim that jumping into the icy waters of Lake Superior will sway their decision (see video)?

In fact the Google Fiber site states that applicants can only apply through the online forms found there.  They will weigh factors like community support, but they’ve created a structured way to demonstrate that support through the site, to establish a fair and level playing field.

Do does this mean they won’t consider that Topeka, KS renamed itself Google for the month of March?

It makes me wonder what kind of legal ground Google is on and whether they will acknowledge whether these stunts swayed their decision.  How will Duluth feel when they’re snubbed in favor of a community that played strictly by the rules…will they complain?

Most likely not, because in fact in a way they’ve already won.  Topeka, Duluth, Sarasota, and others are enjoying massive publicity for their kooky stunts, and energizing their communities…something city admins are always looking to do.  And Google is getting even more PR play as cities around the country beg to be noticed.

But there is a “prize”, competition parameters, and a sponsor…all the contest ingredients except for a lengthy page of official rules.

So is Google Fiber an RFI, a contest, or a publicity stunt?  Seems to be an interesting combination of all three…but is it firmly legal?