A Google ISP?

February 14, 2010

I’ve met a few people that work at Google, and they all seem to love it.  Part of the reason, I’m sure, is that the company always seems to be up to something that’s a least a little bit new, or different, or sometimes off the wall.  This past week, Google announced two new initiatives: Google Buzz, a social networking extension of GMail (about which more anon), and a new high-speed Internet service “experiment”, which will provide direct optical fiber connections to homes in selected locations:

Google is planning to launch an experiment that we hope will make Internet access better and faster for everyone. We plan to test ultra-high speed broadband networks in one or more trial locations across the country. Our networks will deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today, over 1 gigabit per second, fiber-to-the-home connections. We’ll offer service at a competitive price to at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people.

(By way of comparison, Comcast has recently begun advertising its new higher-speed Xfinity™ service. Their Web site is quite coy about the actual speed delivered, but one TV commercial I saw mentioned speeds “up to” 100 Mbps, which would be one-tenth of what Google is suggesting.)

This has, as one would expect created quite a bit of buzz (you should pardon the expression) about what Google is up to.  The city governments of Pittsburgh (in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon) and Seattle have expressed interest in participating in Google’s experiment.  Both cities have significant hi-tech industries; Seattle, of course, is next door to Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond WA.  I would be willing to bet that this news did not do anything to make Steve Ballmer (Microsoft’s CEO) ease up on the office furniture.

So, what is Google up to?  I have no inside track, of course, but a  few things have been suggested.

  • Google wants a really high-speed test bed for experimental technologies and services, one not subject to the whims of a traditional service provider.
  • Google has a lot of dark fiber capacity that it has purchased in the past, and this is the culmination of that.
  • In keeping with its participation in the spectrum auction for the 700MHz band, Google is trying another approach to push the idea of network neutrality.
  • Google is putting on a very public experiment to embarrass the incumbent service providers into improving their offerings.

I think there is some truth in all of these.  Remember that Google, as a company, makes its money by selling Internet advertising.  It is in Google’s interest to make the Internet a more attractive delivery mechanism for more and more types of information.  It has been a strong supporter of network neutrality; having the incumbent carriers impose a surcharge for some content is not something Google wants to see.  Its management is also aware that the United States, once a leader in Internet connectivity, is now an also-ran; and they also know that, despite receiving something like $200 billion in higher rates, accelerated depreciation allowances, and other tax benefits, the incumbent carriers are badly lagging the rest of the world in terms of capabilities.

So I think this is,  in a sense, a warning shot across the bows of the existing service providers.  I doubt that Google really wants to get into the business of being an ISP (although one should remember that they run a pretty big chunk of infrastructure now, and do a good job), but I also think they don’t want their plans to misfire because the telcos and cable companies are still stuck in the last century.

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