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Google's broadband venture

If Google sparks a race to the top among broadband providers, it will hardly be the only one to benefit.

February 15, 2010

Google's plan to build an ultra-fast broadband service is so appealing, it defies credulity. The speed -- 1 gigabit per second -- is about 200 times faster than the fastest connections available in the U.S. today. Alas, for the vast majority of Internet users, Google's gambit is is too good to be true. The new fiber-optic lines will be deployed in only a handful of communities, reaching no more than half a million people. But the point for Google isn't to go head to head with the broadband services already offered by AT&T, Comcast and other phone and cable TV companies. It's to apply not-so-subtle pressure on them to do more.

It's no accident that Google unveiled its fiber-optic vision while the Federal Communications Commission is developing a National Broadband Plan, which will set goals for Internet access services in the United States -- including the amount of bandwidth they should provide. A major impediment to improving this country's comparatively pokey broadband networks is the cost of deploying more fiber optics, but Google's engineers evidently believe they can build a network at significantly less expense than the current state of the art. If so, the Google demonstration project would provide a blueprint for Internet providers to follow.

Phone and cable companies already have developed technologies that are capable of delivering far faster Internet connections than they offer customers. But they devote the vast majority of that bandwidth to lucrative pay-TV services, not to less-pricey Internet access. And they have little incentive to change that ratio, especially not if they would be helping free online video services undercut the demand for pay television.

Nevertheless, faster broadband services would offer far greater value to the public than 700 channels of news, sports and entertainment. Each quantum leap in connectivity has led to a significant transformation -- the dial-up Internet launched global e-commerce; wired broadband enabled "cloud computing" and promoted the digitalization of information and entertainment; mobile broadband networks bring the world's resources to people's fingertips.

Google's gigabit test bed enables innovators to show the public what the next leap in bandwidth could bring to education, medicine and who knows what other segments of the economy.

Internet providers often grumble about Google freeloading on the investments they've made -- its YouTube subsidiary and its Web-based mail and productivity services all reach their customers through other companies' broadband pipes. So Google's latest project is by no means altruistic. On the other hand, if Google sparks a race to the top among broadband providers, it will hardly be the only one to benefit.

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