Google and Verizon

August 8, 2010

Over the last week or so, there has been a good deal of speculation voiced and printed about a series of negotiations that is currently underway between Google and Verizon,   Earlier in the week, the New York Times had a report that the object of the negotiations was an agreement on tiered pricing for carrying different categories of Internet traffic.

Google and Verizon, two leading players in Internet service and content, are nearing an agreement that could allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege.

If this were true,  it would represent a significant about-face for Google, which has been a fairly vocal advocate of network neutrality.   Shortly after the Times article appeared, both Google and Verizon issued statements saying that the article was wrong, and that their conversations were about general principles of Internet regulation.  This is an area of some concern now, since a Federal Appeals Court decision in April limited what the FCC was able to do under its current rule-making authority.

Today, the Times has published another article on the Google – Verizon talks, this time an OpEd piece by Robert Cringely.  He has an interesting hypothesis: that Google is trying to work out a deal by which it can get advantageous treatment for its own content, without violating the basic principle of new neutrality, that all packets are treated equally and are charged for equally.

And so in last week’s controversy over whether Google and Verizon are hatching a deal to undermine net neutrality, it pays to look closely at their words. Both companies maintain that there is no deal and that no money will be paid for faster transmission of data.

In essence, what Cringely suggests is that Google’s idea is to co-locate some of its servers at Verizon’s data centers, which tend to be close, in an Internet topology sense, to Verizon’s customers.  Google is in a good position to do this, not only because of its general network management expertise, but also because it has had, for several years, the capability to deliver a “data center in a box”.   This is essentially a standard shipping container that has been stuffed full of processors, disk drives, network gear, and air conditioning; it can be delivered on the back of a tractor trailer, unloaded in a warehouse or even parking lot, and plugged in — hey, presto, a new data center.  (Cringley first discussed Google’s development of these facilities back in 2005, when he was still writing for PBS.)   If these were installed at Verizon facilities, their relative closeness to the ultimate customer would mean that, on average, Google’s content could arrive faster than that of their competitors.

With servers so close to users, Google could not only send its data faster but also avoid sending it over the Internet backbone that connects service providers and for which they all pay. This would save space for other traffic — and money for both Verizon and Google, as their backbone bills decline (wishful thinking, but theoretically possible). Net neutrality would be not only intact, but enhanced.

Google might pay Verizon for hosting its containerized data centers, but that in itself would leave the letter of net neutrality intact.   In other words, all packets would still be equal, but some would be more equal than others.

There is, of course,no guarantee that Cringely’s speculations are sound.  He has been around the industry for quite a while, and I’ve always found his ideas to be interesting and thought-provoking.  If he is right, this could be a pretty clever move on Google’s part, especially since there is no other content provider I can think of who could possibly duplicate it.

%d bloggers like this: