Google Jolts Telecom Rivals
Plan to Offer Fast Web Service Is Bid to Shape U.S. Broadband Policy; Foes are Skeptical
By JESSICA E. VASCELLARO And AMY SCHATZ
Google Inc., putting more pressure on cable and phone companies, said it plans to begin offering ultrafast Internet services to consumers in a small number of U.S. cities.
Under the plan, the Internet search giant will take its biggest step into supplying Web connections rather than the services that run atop them. Google said it will build and test a few fiber-optic networks that reach homes, aiming to serve 50,000 to 500,000 people. Google executives said the move was designed to accelerate the deployment of faster networks and show off the sort of services that high-speed connections can enable, such as rapid video downloads.
The move carries risks for Google. The company has only dabbled in telecom services so far, and isn't offering the kind of national network that could compete with industry giants. Privately, executives at cable and phone providers expressed skepticism, with one describing the plan as a publicity stunt, since Google didn't announce serious capital spending for the project.
Google's move appears to be as much about politics as about technology. It comes as federal regulators are close to completing a yearlong effort to draft a national broadband plan, which will lay out proposals to ensure all Americans have access to Internet service that is affordable and offers high speed. Google has been campaigning to spur faster service, which would enable consumers to more smoothly use Google services such as the YouTube video site.
"We have been advocating that the [Federal Communications Commission] set up an experimental testbed, and this is our way of putting our money where our mouth is," said Google product manager Minnie Ingersoll. Google said it would select the test locations this year and its service would be offered at "a competitive price."
Google and Internet providers have been facing off over a number of issues in Washington, from the availability of spectrum for wireless access to "net-neutrality," the issue of whether operators should be allowed to charge different content providers different rates for delivering that content.
Ms. Ingersoll said the project was "in line" with the company's views on open access, since Google would let other providers resell service on its network and wouldn't discriminate between different sorts of traffic carried by it. Phone and cable companies aren't required to allow rivals access to their Internet lines, which critics say has hampered competition.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski released a statement calling Google's plan "a significant trial," while public-interest groups applauded the move as a major step toward their goal of seeing all Internet lines as open as Google says its fiber network will be.
Google said it has no intention to build a nationwide network to rival those offered by giants such as Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. but the move could make Google investors nervous given the possible size of its expense. Google said it was too early to estimate the cost of the program, since the cities hadn't been chosen. Google could face embarrassment if the program doesn't roll out as planned and heat over possible service glitches. It could also further galvanize telecoms against it as it is seeking their cooperation on a number of projects, such as selling phones running its Android software.
The move is Google's latest attempt to pressure Internet providers to upgrade and open up their networks. Impatient with wireless carriers' control over services on cellphones, Google bid to purchase wireless spectrum, invested in wireless carrier Clearwire Corp., and bought a company that allows users to make Internet calls over mobile phones. Now, it is making a similar move in the wired Internet word, facing off against cable and phone providers—which have faced public criticism for not upgrading their networks fast enough.
Whether Google can succeed with its ultrafast network remains unclear. It has virtually no experience in the area, besides operating a relatively small Wi-Fi network in Mountain View, Calif., that has about 20,000 active users, according to the company. It had participated with Earthlink Inc. in an effort to provide free wireless access to San Francisco, which was abandoned amid political opposition and financing concerns.
Art Brodsky, communications director of Public Knowledge, a public-interest group in Washington, said that even if Google comes up with something "whiz-bang" it is unclear whether large service providers would upgrade their networks faster. The group has received funding from Google, as well as other Internet providers, including Comcast.
A cable industry official noted Google has no background in the difficulties of sending trucks and technicians out to people's homes to provide customer service and sending customers a bill every month. "If this were easy, everybody would be doing it," this person said.
Google said in a statement it knows "that other companies have been in this business a long time, and we're not pretending to have all the answers here." It added, "We do have experience with Web infrastructure from operating our data centers."
Ms. Ingersoll said Google will manage the deployment of the fiber network, but probably partner with contractors to help build it. Google said it would offer service at a speed of one gigabit per second—100 times faster than what many U.S. consumers have access to today.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which represents cable operators, noted in a statement that cable operators have invested $161 billion over the past 13 years in Internet lines, and said that they "look forward to learning more about Google's broadband experiment."—Nat Worden and Roger Cheng contributed to this article.
Google Ultrafast Broadband May Shake Up Fiber Market
Brad Reed, Network World
Not content to merely challenge Internet carriers in the mobile phone world, Google is now challenging them in the fiber world as well.
Google Wednesday announced on its blog that is constructing an experimental fiber network that the company says will "deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today with 1 gigabit per second, fiber-to-the-home connections."
Google says the network will have three main goals: to foster the development of next-generation applications, to explore new ways of deploying fiber networks and to provide a model for an open access network governed by network neutrality rules. Google says that it will offer access to the network in "a small number of trial locations" and that it will serve from 50,000 to 500,000 people.
Google's fiber network proposal is somewhat similar to its decision in 2007 to launch its own mobile operating system, in that both initiatives reflect Google's willingness to use its clout to change how carriers operate. When Google unveiled the Android platform to the rest of the world, it was the company's way of pushing the mobile phone industry toward more openness and of fostering great application development. Because Android is an open source platform, it can be adopted by device manufacturers for free and can provide a no-cost platform for application development.
Similarly, Google's decision to release its own Nexus One smartphone was its way of trying to divorce mobile devices from specific carriers. So if AT&T were to begin offering the Nexus One, for instance, users could switch from their T-Mobile accounts to an AT&T account without purchasing a new device. Google hopes that this will lead to more carrier-agnostic devices in the future that will allow users to switch carriers without ditching their favorite mobile phones.
And now, with the construction of its experimental fiber network, Google is trying to push its vision for how the Internet as a whole should operate. With typical broadband speeds lagging behind those in countries such as South Korea and Japan, Google is seemingly trying to give U.S. carriers a kick in the pants by saying, "If we can build a network this fast that serves large numbers of people, so can you."
And what's more, the Google network will be open access, meaning third-party service providers will be able to use it to deliver Internet to their customers. In this way, Google is trying to bring back discarded open-access rules that used to require incumbent telecom companies such as Verizon and AT&T to allow ISPs such as Earthlink to buy space on their DSL broadband networks at discount prices. Before the Federal Communications Commission tossed out these open-access rules in 2005, incumbent carriers would typically wholesale access to their networks to other ISPs that would compete with each other to sell Internet services to consumers and businesses.
But while Google may intend for its network to serve as a model for other carriers, there is no guarantee that it will lead the incumbent carriers to follow suit. After all, the success of the open source Android operating system hasn't made proprietary operating systems such as the iPhone OS or BlackBerry any less popular or profitable. What remains to be seen, then, will be whether the Google network will lead to a revolution or will remain just a pretty model.
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