Google Challenge to US Broadband Might Actually Change Things

Google said Wednesday it will build a series of "ultra high-speed" fiber optic broadband networks that will pump out 1GB bps (bit per second) connections to the lucky “50,000 to 500,000 people” within their reach.

Analysts have long speculated on Google’s fiber holdings. The company has been buying fiber lines in the US for some years now. Now Google appears ready at last to run real networks on the fiber. Google also has close ties with fiber infrastructure wholesalers like Level 3 and Broadband.com.

Google says it will use an open access model, where the owner of the network sells wholesale space on the network to third party ISPs, who will then sell broadband service to consumers under their own flag. Here's Google's own description of the plan.

Google isn’t talking about building a nationwide network. In fact, based on Google’s announcement, the network will reach but a tiny slice of US broadband consumers. So it’s mostly symbolic at this point.

And Google certainly isn’t the first to do this: the fiber-based Utopia Network covering 18 cities in Utah has operated under the same model. The big ISPs worked feverishly in the Utah state legislature to stop the Utopia Network in its early days. But the network got built, and has been active for years.

Verizon's FiOS network is proof that consumers want the speed of fiber broadband. But most broadband is still delivered over copper lines to US households, and at a price per bit that is among the highest in the world.

But this is Google we’re talking about. It has massive influence in business, and, increasingly in regulatory circles. The announcement comes right on the heels of the federal government releasing the first round of funding for broadband networks to rural and underserved areas. It appears to be intended as an adjunct to the FCC’s own Broadband Plan, as if to say: “See, you can do it like this.”

Google loves challenging old business models with new technology ideas. Today’s announcement is the search giant’s opening salvo in a challenge to US broadband, which is monopolistic, slow and sees openness as a threat to profits.

“We hope this will serve as an example to other network operators that the open model should not be feared, but should be emulated,” Markham Erickson, Executive Director of the Open Internet Coalition, said in a release today. Google is the marquee member of the group. “Profit and openness are mistakenly seen to be in conflict; in fact we believe they are synergistic and amplifying,” Erickson said.

Google hopes that the new model will fire up the business of being a small, local ISP. That can only be good. The regulators have allowed the huge ISPs (AT&T, Verizon et al) to dominate the broadband business with sheer scale, forcing the smaller guys out. Imagine buying internet service from Bob’s ISP at a reasonable price; oh, and you get 1GB of throughput.

I sincerely hope the tech and telecom communities rally around what Google is trying to do here. The planned fiber networks are not big enough to excite the suspicions among privacy conspiracy junkies that Google is only running the networks to collect more data about us, and as a new platform for its advertising business.

If the network goes national, those will be important questions to explore. For now, though, Google has a rare opportunity to put real pressure on large ISPs like AT&T and Comcast to sell more bandwidth for less money.

I can get behind that.

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