Mayor Bao Nguyen behind the dais at his first city council meeting. Credit: Thy Vo / Voice of OC

Garden Grove city leaders are positioning themselves to take full advantage of President Barack Obama efforts to launch a nationwide initiative encouraging local leaders to promote high-speed internet access.

Earlier this month, Garden Grove council members voted unanimously to participate in Next Century Cities, a pledge taken by cities nationwide to make a commitment toward more affordable and accessible high-speed internet for their residents.

Mayor Bao Nguyen, a 34-year-old union organizer with a robust social media presence, is spearheading the effort, joining more than 40 cities nationwide who want to put high-speed internet on the table next to basic infrastructure needs like roads, water and electricity.

“It recognizes that in today’s economy and world we need high speed Internet,” said Nguyen. “I’m excited to be collaborating with and learning from cities across the U.S. that have already been successful in delivering fast, affordable, reliable internet to their residents.”

More than 50 cities have taken the pledge for to improve accesses to broadband, whether it means government-owned internet service providers, passing bonds to lay down new fiberoptic cable networks, or partnering with corporate entities like Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

Still, the mayor’s plans are fledgling, and the initiative doesn’t come with any immediate financial commitment for the city.

Nguyen says he hopes other cities will consider joining a broader regional discussion about broadband internet.

“I’m interested in collaborating with other cities and seeing if our county government can be a part of this discussion,” Nguyen said.

Garden Grove is the only Orange County city to join Next Century Cities so far, although other cities have shown an interest in broadband initiatives in the past.

In 2013, Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Irvine, Laguna Woods, Mission Viejo and Newport Beach all pitched Google to become part of the launch of an experimental project called Google Fiber, named after the underground fiberoptic cables that enable high-speed connections.

In 2006, Anaheim launched a pilot project with Earthlink for citywide wireless internet, locking into a 10-year exclusive contract.

That partnership fizzled out two years later when it failed to turn a profit.

Nationwide, some cities are tinkering with municipal broadband — in other words, starting their own government-owned internet service provider.

Municipal broadband is an especially salient option for sparsely populated rural cities, where consumers might have just one option for a broadband connection.

In 2006, Wilson, North Carolina borrowed $35 million through its municipal electric utility to lay down fiber, eventually forming a separate public agency to deliver broadband internet to 7,000 residents.

Critics meanwhile have pointed to programs such as the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, or UTOPIA, as the poster child for failed municipal broadband.

The agency, a consortium of 11 municipalities, has run operating losses every year since it started in 2004, with net assets of negative $148 million, a mountain of debt that taxpayers are on the hook for, critics argue.

Councilman Phat Bui was skeptical of the idea from the start.

Bui pointed to his experience running a small IT consulting firm with clients that have included Fortune 500 companies and the State of California. Bui said he has “no problem” with the agreement itself but that it was “too vague and it doesn’t mean anything.”

“I’m concerned that we’re just here for fanfare and aren’t doing anything,” Bui said.

“We’d be the first in Orange County to join this discussion — that’s not meaningless,” Nguyen fired back.

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