Google Gigabit Broadband: Progress vs. Profits

Google announced plans yesterday to test out ultrafast gigabit broadband in limited markets. However, that doesn't mean Google is entering yet another highly competitive industry (at least not yet). The intended audiences for the tests are the broadband providers and their subscribers.

Google plans to test out gigabit broadband in select markets.
The goal is for Google to demonstrate what is possible. By choosing some test markets and implementing broadband 100 times faster than that being delivered by most broadband providers currently, Google can prove that it's possible, and back it up with real-world results and project costs.

In theory, broadband providers like Comcast and AT&T are already aware of what is possible. But, broadband providers are interested in what's profitable more than what's possible. At the end of the day, Comcast and AT&T executives answer to shareholders more than customers, and they don't answer to Google at all.

As it is, Comcast and AT&T don't just deliver the fastest possible speeds to all customers. Each offers a range of service plans, with varying download and upload speeds, that all work over the same wires with the same hardware. If you want the maximum speed, you are going to have to pay--a lot--for that maximum speed.

Comcast has already pushed its maximum broadband speed from 1.5 Mbps in 2002, to 50 Mbps in most markets today. A recent Comcast blog post details plans to implement new XFINITY technology that will raise the maximum speed to 100 Mbps or higher. Of course, even if Comcast doubles its current speed and implements XFINITY, it will still only be delivering one tenth of the broadband speed proposed by Google.

From a user perspective, satisfaction with Internet connection speed is relative. Long after DSL and cable broadband were available, many users were still happily dialing in with 56k modems. Happy, that is, until they visited a friend or relative with broadband and saw what was possible.

Business customers may be perfectly satisfied with current mid-range offerings from Comcast and AT&T. Broadband speeds of 6 Mbps, or 12 Mbps are just fine for many business purposes. However, needs change and technology evolves. Businesses that need to transfer large files or perform real-time video streaming might be frustrated with speeds twice that fast.

There is also the fact that the size of the pipe isn't the only consideration. Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11n wireless (600 Mbps) are emerging standards, but most users--both consumer and business--still rely on 100 Mbps Ethernet and the more common 802.11g wireless (54 Mbps). If the data maxes out at 54 Mbps inside your network, the benefits of a broadband pipeline twice, or twenty times that bandwidth will be handicapped.

The Internet is constantly changing, and Google is one of the driving forces pushing the envelope for that change. Granted, Google has its own profit motive and is not operating out of pure altruism. The faster users can get from Web page to Web page, and from YouTube video to YouTube video, the more ad revenue Google can generate.

Regardless of the motives, faster broadband speeds are necessary. By proving that it's possible to cost-effectively deploy gigabit broadband, and demonstrating the potential uses of that mind-blowing speed, Google will uncork the Genie for customers and alter the broadband landscape.

For broadband providers, Google's efforts elicit a different mythological metaphor--opening Pandora's box. Once Google shows it can be done, customers will want it, and broadband providers like Comcast and AT&T will have to start using more of their profits to invest in next-generation infrastructure instead of shareholder dividends.

Tony Bradley is co-author of Unified Communications for Dummies . He tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW , and can be contacted at his Facebook page .

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