February 16, 2010 By Bill Schrier
The nation's e-mail and blogging and twitter engines worked overtime on Wednesday February 10th when Google announced its intent to fund ultra-high-speed Internet access for 50,000 to 500,000 people nationwide.
This ain't your grandma's "broadband" connection. And it ain't the 100-squared broadband envisioned by FCC Chair Julius Genachowski in a speech on Tuesday February 15th - 100-squared is 100 megabits per second to 100 million people by 2020 - a pretty bold vision in and of itself. Google wants to provide one gigabit (one billion bits or about 120 million bytes) per second to homes via fiber optic cable.
At a gigabit per second, a very high quality movie would download in 8 seconds flat, compared to an hour or more with a fast cable modem or DSL connection. Google published an RFI and is seeking responses from cities who want Google to come and build. The City of Seattle announced very quickly its intention to apply and jump on the bandwagon. Of course we have a visionary Mayor, Mike McGinn, who is publicly seeking, as a priority for his administration, to build a fiber network to every home and business in Seattle.
So what is Google trying to do here?
Is it being a altruistic corporation, hoping to better the lives of average citizens while fulfilling its pledge to "make money without doing evil"?
Some of Google's motives are clear. They want to offer a competitive service and these networks are clearly "experimental". This is all about Internet, not about offering phone or cable TV service, although, at a gigabit a second, you can watch HDTV video from websites and use video conferencing and telephone service until you are blind and hoarse.
They explicitly want to "see what developers and users can do with ultra high-speeds, whether it's creating new bandwidth-intensive "killer apps" and services, or other uses we can't yet imagine". That implies to me that they want to connect high-tech businesses to other high-tech businesses and to their own employees in their homes as well as connecting other very tech-savvy users, students, and others who will push the envelope. This is probably NOT a network for serving low-income neighborhoods, bridging the digital divide, or connecting mom-and-pop businesses in neighborhoods.
Furthermore, Google would build networks to serve 50,000 to 500,000 "people" (not households or businesses). They want to serve multiple cities, so the chances any individual City would get service are pretty low (1 in 600 or maybe 1 in 6000). And in any given City, not many households would be served. If they do networks to serve 100,000 people, that's probably about 30,000 households, and if they do this in five cities, it is about 6,000 households in any given place.
Google makes money selling targeted ads. They also like consumers to use their products, e.g. if you want to use Buzz you need a Gmail account and it undoubtedly will gather information about how people use these networks as a part of the "experiment".
Finally, I am certain Google is sending a message to the cable companies and telecommunications carriers here. Those companies thrive on making broadband scarce. As a scarce commodity and a duopoly service (as it is in many communities), the telcomms and cable folks can charge more and keep hiking up rates. They put limits on how much broadband any given consumer can use. They undoubtedly would like to charge "content providers" - companies like Microsoft and Amazon and ... yes ... Google - money to make sure the content of those companies has priority and guaranteed delivery in an allegedly scarce and constrained bandwidth network. This is what the "net neutrality" debate is all about.
But Google (and lots of other people) know better. With fiber-to-the-home, speed is unlimited, the bandwidth is no longer scarce and the fat profits of the incumbents evaporate.
I'm certainly excited about the Google challenge. They are challenging the developers, the carriers, the cable companies and the FCC, to push the limits in its national broadband plan, due out March 17th.
Are there strings attached? No doubt. But this is a revolutionary proposal. Its about the economic future of our cities, region and nation.
And it is cool.