Google Set to Showcase Fast Internet
Thursday, Feb 11, 2010NEW YORK TIMES
By MIGUEL HELFT
SAN FRANCISCO — Google said Wednesday that it would offer ultrahigh-speed Internet access in some communities in a test that could showcase the kinds of things that would be possible if the United States had faster broadband networks.
In Google’s vision of the future of the Internet, the live streaming of 3-D medical images from a rural health clinic to a specialized medical center or the downloading of a full-length movie in a matter of minutes would become commonplace.
But Google’s promise to build the demonstration network is also the latest example of the Internet search company using its money and industry clout to help shape the future of the Internet to its liking.
Google has long been unhappy with the state of broadband in America, where speeds lag far behind those of other developed countries. It announced the plan for its high-speed network, which would be open to other companies wanting to offer Internet service, just as federal regulators were debating new rules for the Internet and preparing a national broadband plan commissioned by Congress that could call for higher-speed networks to be available nationwide.
Google is showing the government “that we can have super-fast open broadband networks that break the duopoly of cable and telephone companies that we have today,” said Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, a public interest group that advocates for open Internet rules.
Critics say that Google’s move is little more than a public relations effort aimed at promoting its policy goals. They say that by spending relatively small sums, Google would be, in essence, pressuring the telecommunications companies that provide broadband access to millions of American homes to abide by Google’s rules.
“This is mainly a P.R. stunt,” said Scott Cleland, chairman of Netcompetition.org, an organization that represents many telecommunications companies and their industry associations and opposes new regulations on the Internet. “With one hand Google is urging regulations that stifle broadband deployment, and with the other hand, they are saying that telecom companies should spend hundreds of billions” to give ultrafast service to all Americans, Mr. Cleland said.
Google has challenged the business models of established telecommunications companies before. In 2008, it bid more than $4 billion in a government auction of wireless spectrum merely to loosen the control that carriers would have over the use of the airwaves.
“Google, indeed, appears to be playing a chess game,” said David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “If they can create an even mildly credible commitment to offer superfast broadband to the home, it could strike fear in the hearts of cable and telcos, stimulating an arms race of investment — just as they did in the auction for spectrum a few years ago.”
In a post on its corporate blog, Google said it planned to build and test a high-speed fiber optic broadband network capable of allowing people to surf the Web at a gigabit a second, or about 100 times the speed of many broadband connections. Thase trial could be offered in several communities and extend to as many as 500,000 people.
In an interview, Richard S. Whitt, Google’s Washington telecommunications and media counsel, said Google was not entering the broadband or Internet service provider business, but rather was using the test to push the industry into offering faster Internet access at lower cost. “This is a business model nudge and an innovation nudge.”
Mr. Whitt said that if the project was successful, Google would benefit because more people would use the Internet and, in turn, the company’s own services.
Google said that over the next six weeks it would solicit proposals from communities interested in the service. Mr. Whitt said he hoped that the service could be deployed by the end of the year in some areas, though he acknowledged it might take longer.
Early this year, Google urged the Federal Communications Commission, which is slated to deliver a national broadband plan to Congress next month, to encourage similar kinds of test projects. Mr. Whitt said that Google decided to put its own money behind the idea, though he declined to say how much Google would invest.
In a statement, Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the F.C.C., welcomed Google’s announcement. “This significant trial will provide an American test bed for the next generation of innovative, high-speed Internet apps, devices and services,” Mr. Genachowski said. “The F.C.C.’s National Broadband Plan will build upon such private-sector initiatives and will include recommendations for facilitating and accelerating greater investment in broadband.”
Mr. Whitt said that Google would build the network and offer Internet service to consumers. But it will also open the network to other service providers, emulating a business model that was common during the days of dial-up Internet access. That model all but disappeared in the United States with advent of broadband, but remains common in other countries.
Google has a history of pushing against what it sees as barriers to fast and unfettered Internet access. Since 2006, the company has operated its own free wireless network in Mountain View, Calif., where it is based. It later supported a plan to offer similar service in San Francisco, which was derailed because of opposition from some city officials.