Google, never satisfied with the pace of change, plans a test that will provide 50,000 to 500,000 people with fiber-optic broadband Internet access with a network speed of a gigabit per second starting as soon as this year.
"We're planning to build and test ultra high-speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations across the United States. We'll deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today with 1 gigabit per second, fiber-to-the-home connections," Google product managers Minnie Ingersoll and James Kelly said in a blog post Wednesday. "Our goal is to experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone."
The company plans to use the experiment to test new ways to build fiber networks and to see what applications programmers can write. And Chief Executive Eric Schmidt called for better Internet access in the United States in a Washington Post op-ed Wednesday, calling it a matter of national competitiveness.
"High-speed Internet access must be much more widely available. Broadband is a major driver of new jobs and businesses, yet we rank only 15th in the world for access. More government support for broadband remains critical," Schmidt said.
Google suggested trials of gigabit-per-second Net access in comments to the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan, but then realized Google itself could be the catalyst, said Richard Whitt, Google's Washington, D.C., telecom and media counsel.
"As we thought more," Whitt said, "we realized we could leave this to the government, but we're fortunate to have some resources. Why don't we try this ourselves and make it a reality as a new testbed approach?"
Google, whose profits come from ads on its search engine, has been pushing for better Internet access for years. It's sought to catalyze next-generation wireless networking by investing in Clearwire, encourage Wi-Fi in airports and airplanes, open up use of "white space" in U.S. radio spectrum, and foster Net access for billions of people who lack it.
Google will offer the broadband access "at competitive prices," Kelly said in a YouTube video about the project.
One can imagine some angst at companies such as AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, which today offer broadband speeds in the United States that typically are in the range of 1 to 10 megabits per second, though 100Mbps rates are in the offing. However, these companies may find a place in the Google plan, which will give users "the choice of multiple service providers."
Details remain muddy about how exactly middlemen or partners will be involved, but here's what Google had to say about the partnership matter in a statement:
We will allow third-parties to offer their own Internet access services, or other services, using our network. We believe this approach will maximize user choice as well as spur greater innovation and competition. Most providers in Europe and many places elsewhere in the world operate open access networks. It will be open to any service provider, including incumbents and new entrants. "Open" means open.
As part of the planned trial, Google will offer competitively priced, high-speed Internet access service to residents of the chosen communities. In addition, we will allow third parties to offer their own Internet access services, or other data services, on our open network. It's too early to say how much we will charge for access to our network. We plan to set prices that are fair and competitive.
Whitt said he alerted his peers at Internet service providers AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Cox Communications, Qwest, and Time Warner about Google's plan shortly after Google published its plan in the public blog. The purpose of the e-mail was "to let them know this is a testbed approach. Nothing here is intended to supplant what they do in the market."
He also went out of his way to praise Verizon's Fios fiber-optic broadband service and said Google is open to working with Internet service providers. "We are prepared to act as the ISP to the end user, but we're also very open to working with the folks who want to be the ISP, like Earthlink or AOL. We're happy to work with them," Whitt said.
Still, it's easy to imagine displeasure as these companies, already squabbling with Google over Net neutrality matters, reckon with a rival that makes their efforts at innovation look a generation behind.
"As with some of the things that Google has done in the wireless space, this 'experiment' could be Google's way of pushing the telcos to more rapidly increase their own fiber deployments," said Ben Schachter, an analyst with Broadpoint AmTech, in a research note. He estimates the project will cost Google between $60 million and $1.6 billion.
Other Google services stand to gain from faster Net speeds. For example, high-definition video could help attract studios and make YouTube a pay-per-view competitor to Netflix and cable TV. Or Chrome OS, with its Web-based applications, could become a more responsive competitor to traditional operating systems. Google Voice, which is being augmented with voice-over-IP service, could become more compelling.
Note that phone and cable companies already offer some of those services through subscriptions that elevate them from being mere "dump pipe" providers of network access.
But boosting Google services is not the objective of the testbed, Whitt said. "The idea is not about pushing our own products and services. It's about creating next-generation products and technologies and applications and doing it an open and robust manner," he said.
Google is looking for community partners--states, counties, cities--for the project, with a March 26 deadline for getting in touch. Google's selections will be announced later this year.
"Then, if all things come together, we'd like to begin providing service toward the end of the year," Whitt said.
The work will involve more than just the "last mile" of net access, he said.
"We're building in very high capacity fiber to the homes. Beyond that, we have to build out the middle mile. That's got to be part of the whole network build," he said. "There are challenges in other parts of the network and we hope to tackle those at the same time."
And the next-generation Net addressing system, Internet Protocol version 6, could be part of the plan, too.
"Vint Cerf is pushing IPv6," Whitt said, referring to the Internet pioneer who's now Google's chief Internet evangelist. "My guess is he won't allow us to get away with running a network that doesn't have some IPv6 capabilities in there."