January 17, 2005 4:00 AM PST

Google wants 'dark fiber'

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Is Google planning to build a global fiber-optic network from scratch? And, if so, why?

The question has cropped up in light of a recent job posting on the search engine giant's Web site seeking experts in the field.

"Google is looking for Strategic Negotiator candidates with experience in...(i)dentification, selection, and negotiation of dark fiber contracts both in metropolitan areas and over long distances as part of development of a global backbone network," the posting reads in part.

"Dark fiber" refers to fiber-optic cable that's already been laid, but is not yet in use. Thousands of miles of dark fiber are available in the United States, but there have been few takers because of the high costs of making it operational.

A Google representative declined to elaborate on the job posting. Still, the posting offers a glimpse into Google's bandwidth needs over the coming years, indicating some prodigious internal projections. Although it's still rare for companies to buy significant amounts of fiber on their own, it's not unheard of among companies with exceptional data demands, such as banks. So buying and developing fiber now could well be nothing more than a strategy for cutting costs down the road.

But the move also raises some tantalizing thoughts, including the long-shot chance that the company is laying the groundwork to jump into the telecommunications business. The posting was reported by Light Reading, a Web site that tracks the optical networking industry.

If Google were to build its own global or national fiber network, the project would likely cost billions of dollars and take years to implement, an investment that would be hard to justify based on the networking needs of most companies. Renting "lit" fiber from carriers is generally a cheaper, and therefore preferred, way to go.

Google is thought to be a shrewd judge of computing value, having built its widely admired infrastructure on the back of low-budget server clusters. At the same time, curious geeks have long pondered the apparent mismatch between its service demands and the reputed scale of its computing resources.

Dark motivations
A handful of dark-fiber projects have been gaining momentum recently, mostly involving large consortia of private companies, universities and medical facilities, sometimes with heavy government backing. Best-known is the National LambdaRail (NLR) , which has acquired more than a third of the 28,000 route miles of dark fiber so far snapped up by the research community, according to Steve Corbato, Internet2's director of network initiatives and an NLR board member.

"We view this, in a sense, as exploiting a moment in time," Corbato said. The telecom boom of the late 1990s led to a glut in fiber assets, and the subsequent bust put undeveloped fiber on the market at bargain basement prices. "The sense of urgency in acquiring these assets has been tied to the unique opportunity that's been presented...The spot market for fiber is already going up, and most people expect these assets will get gobbled up."

Corbato says he has noticed signs of increasing interest in dark fiber from private enterprise of late, most notably among large financial institutions. Meanwhile, in December, cable giant Comcast signed a $100 million-plus deal to buy long-haul dark fiber to build out its network.

A Level3 representative declined to comment when told of Google's job posting.

Corbato also declined to speculate about Google's plans. But he said fiber-optic expertise is a natural fit for a company like Google.

"If I were the CIO of an international information technology company," he said, "I would think that having these types of skills would be a natural to have within the organization."

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