Google To Develop Superfast “Experimental Fiber Network”

Google continues to flirt with being an ISP or carrier. Several years ago the company was part of the aborted municipal WiFi bid for San Francisco with Earthlink. Google is also one of the major forces behind the White Spaces initiative (“WiFi on steroids“) that seeks unused TV spectrum for broadband purposes. In addition, Google currently operates a free WiFi network in and around Mountain View, California where the company is headquartered. And it’s an investor in WiMax provider Clearwire.

A few years ago Google was reportedly aggregating “dark fiber” and seeking a person to “negotiat[e] dark fiber contracts both in metropolitan areas and over long distances as part of development of a global backbone network . . .”

Today Google is announcing that the company is going to “build and test ultra high-speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations across the United States.” The company asserts that these networks 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.”

The stated intention is to “offer service at a competitive price to at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people.” Like Google’s aspirations for the White Spaces spectrum this appears to be geared toward rural or underserved markets in the US. This won’t be free WiFi but “competitively priced” WiFi.

Google says that its goal is to experiment “with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone” and provides some specific use cases in its blog post:

  • Next generation apps: We want to see what developers and users can do with ultra high-speeds, whether it’s creating new bandwidth-intensive “killer apps” and services, or other uses we can’t yet imagine.
  • New deployment techniques: We’ll test new ways to build fiber networks, and to help inform and support deployments elsewhere, we’ll share key lessons learned with the world.
  • Openness and choice: We’ll operate an “open access” network, giving users the choice of multiple service providers. And consistent with our past advocacy, we’ll manage our network in an open, non-discriminatory and transparent way.

This last bullet is interesting; Google appears to be positioning itself as a wholesaler rather than a direct-to-consumer ISP in this instance. Indeed, the company said it will allow others to utilize/tap the network.

Google has long battled with telcos (i.e., AT&T) over net neutrality and access to the network. (The case was made to me that the recent complaint about “search neutrality” by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council is ultimately being fueled by AT&T behind the scenes.) Beyond simply expanding broadband coverage to under-served communities, the company seems to be seeking a variety of ways to control or ensure unfettered access to the pipes that provide connectivity to its services.

Consider the myriad Google strategies underway:

  • White Spaces
  • WiMax
  • Fiber networks

Some will surely see this as the latest installment in the ongoing story of Google’s push toward “world domination” or, at the very least, to become a full-service carrier/ISP/telco — or alternative. Google Voice will very soon be a Skype-like alternative to conventional telco networks (and mobile carriers).

The Nexus One is being sold directly by Google. In the future Google will also sell Chrome OS netbooks and maybe tablets and perhaps other devices directly to consumers. Eventually connectivity could (and will) be offered via a range of providers including Google directly or its affiliates. (Google also has visions of a competitive marketplace for broadband in the future.)

Google believes that better, faster and more ubiquitous connectivity benefits the company through increased usage. The Android example supports that thesis in mobile to a great degree.

There will be the inevitable anti-trust discussion of Google’s apparent effort to “own the pipes.” The third bullet above — “openness and choice” — may be Google’s strategy to avoid this issue by providing third parties with access to the network. Clearly consumers want faster broadband speeds at competitive prices and the Obama administration is using stimulus money to try and promote broadband growth and development across the US. It’s unclear whether Google has applied for any of this money as part of the program above.

As with Android and Chrome, but potentially in an even bigger way, this is a significant step for Google and shows that it will continue to make efforts to try and control its fate in arenas that the company sees as strategic.

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Postscript: Google offered a range information and commentary in reaction to the announcement:

Free Press:
New America Foundation
Public Knowledge:
NATOA:
Open Internet Coalition
Google also provided a comment issued by FCC Chair Julius Genachowski:
“Big broadband creates big opportunities. This significant trial will provide an American testbed for the next generation of innovative, high-speed Internet apps, devices, and services. The FCC’s National Broadband Plan will build upon such private-sector initiatives and will include recommendations for facilitating and accelerating greater investment in broadband, creating jobs and increasing America’s global competitiveness.”
Postscript number 2: I finally spoke to Google about all this and they helped clarify the following for me:
  • Google does not intend to build a nationwide ISP
  • Major markets are not going to get this in all probability — the population range is pretty firm (up to 500K population: Lancaster, PA or Spokane, WA for example)
  • Google is trying to see what this kind of speed will make possible in terms of service and application delivery, as well as “modeling” a new form of broadband “best practices” for the broader market
  • Third parties may utilize Google’s network for delivery of services, which could go beyond Internet and could include phone and TV
  • There’s no WiFi aspect to this fiber network. I was told you can’t get this kind of speed w/o a physical chord or cable

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Google: Business Issues | Google: Internet Access | Top News

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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