With its latest project, Google is looking to add some major speed to the internet.
With its latest project, Google is looking to add some major speed to the internet. iStock.com
Sometimes it's hard to take Google Seriously. It feels like they release products and projects daily. How do you tell what will rock and what will fizzle?
This week the company revealed Google Buzz — yet another way to connect and share with your friends, relatives, acquaintances and pets. Whoopeee!! Oh, wait, I'm not sure I really need that.
Then it announced an ambitious experiment in ultra-broadband Internet access. That's when I stopped thinking and started dreaming.
Google says it will run fiber-to-the-home trials at the astounding data speed of 1 gigabit per second. They'll sell this service at "a competitive price" to 50,000 people, possibly rising to 500,000 people.
It's at this point that I'd like to toss around some choice slang that is not acceptable when printed under the NPR banner. But I can't. So I'll just leave it at this: Holy cow!
I can't get past that speed number: One gigabit per second. Google says that's about 100 times faster than most home broadband connections. I'd say it's more than 100 times faster. My DSL connection is certainly not running at 10 Mbps. This is the kind of number that makes you sit back and wonder, if they can do that, why isn't someone else — a dedicated ISP, for instance — already doing it?
Verizon is the only company in the U.S. to roll out fiber-to-the-home connections on a large scale. Looking at their Web page, they are offering a top speed of 50 Mbps. That's 20 times slower than what Google is proposing.
With Google's speed, you could download high-def Hollywood movies at your convenience. You wouldn't be watching a download-progress bar; you'd be watching Avatar. But what else could you do?
Google says answering that question is one of its three goals for the project. What new apps would blossom if people were given a flood of connectivity at a consumer-level price? The other two goals are to experiment with new techniques for laying big fiber networks and to promote openness in the data networks that connect the public to the Internet.
In a Washington Post opinion piece, Google CEO Eric Schmidt argued this week that the U.S. needs to up the broadband ante to be a competitive, growing economy:
High-speed Internet access must be much more widely available. Broadband is a major driver of new jobs and businesses, yet we rank only 15th in the world for access. More government support for broadband remains critical.
So, it doesn't look like this is Google looking to get into the ISP/provider business on a national scale. It looks like the company is using its huge pile of cash and deep pool of engineering talent to push the normally conservative cousins known as the U.S. government and private industry into a race for speed. Google seems to be taking action on the ground as a form of advocacy that can't be ignored in the corridors of power.
Widespread availability of super-speed Internet access is only half the puzzle for Google. The other half is ensuring that the Internet remains an open platform, where you don't have to buy other services from your provider — such as phone or TV service — to get online at hyper-speed.
Minnie Ingersoll, a product manager for alternative access at Google, told GigaOM that "our fiber to the home is strictly an IP data pipe." She went on to say:
Think back to when we all had dial-up and no idea what would be possible once we moved into this broadband world. This is like that, and that's where the open nature of the network is important. We have a lot of Google engineers who are excited and experimenting with apps and services on the network ... to offer products and services on top of the network.
So Google sees the network as a computer platform, just like Windows or Mac OS is a platform. An open network is a technology on which everyone — including Google — can build new tools and services. No one company, however, owns the Internet. So keeping it open at all ends is a tricky business when there are so many competing interests involved.
Deciding where to carry out Google's experiment will be a competition in its own right. The company is looking for communities to work with across the country and is taking online nominations from citizens and government officials until March 26.
The question remains, even if Google follows through and builds out its gigabit-to-the-home network, will it amount to anything? Will it advance the Internet and lead to new technologies being built on top of the network? Will it influence the officials and companies Google wants to put pressure on? Or will it just be another grand gesture that ends up going nowhere but to the scrap heap of Google products that promised much and delivered not-so-much?
As with all things, only time will tell.
Here's the official Google announcement/pitch:
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