Google's Potemkin Broadband Villages

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What, really, will Google’s proposed 1-Gbps fiber-to-the-home networks prove?

Assuming, that is, the Internet giant actually follows through on its promises and builds something (see Google to Build Its Own Killer App Network).

Google has admitted its vague plans are intended to push the FCC to enact measures that will spur investment in higher-speed networks, as well as push lawmakers to enact network-neutrality legislation.

“Our goal is to experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone,” Google product managers Minnie Ingersoll and James Kelly wrote in their blog posting announcing the “Think Big With a Gig” campaign.

But it’s not clear what the effects of subsidized, experimental 1-Gbps fiber-to-the-home services will have on anything. Except possibly burn a bit of a hole in Google’s fat wallet (not that it cares about dropping a few hundred million bucks here or there): VideoNuze’s Will Richmond calculates that the cost of an FTTH build for Google could be more than $10,000 per subscriber.

The Googlers tell us there are tons of cool things you can do with an absurdly fast connection: download an HD movie in less than 5 minutes, or watch a live 3D video of a university lecture. Plus, you know, all kinds of stuff we haven’t yet dreamed of. (Sounds magical.)

Trouble is, these ultra-mega-supra-fast 1-Gbps apps, if they actually tap that kind of throughput, will hit bottlenecks on the open Internet. People in a Google-fibered neighborhood will be able to do 3D videoconferencing with each other. But not to anyone on the regular Internet.

There are hardware limits, too. Most individual computers don’t have Gigabit Ethernet ports, although some newer ones do. And most wireless home routers aren’t able to handle download speeds greater than 50 Mbps. “The CE manufacturers haven’t kept pace” with even DOCSIS 3.0, Mediacom’s Dan Templin told me last month, when he was telling me about the MSO’s expanded high-speed rollout. “The gating factor is the consumer’s equipment and their devices.”

Moreover, Google doesn’t intend to make this an actual business. Sanford Bernstein’s Craig Moffett noted that Google doesn’t plan to offer cable TV service over the network: “In essence, Google appears to be promising Verizon FiOS with much higher costs and a fraction of the revenues.”

So in a sense, Google is going to build racetracks where people can drive around prototypes of cars at 1,000 MPH, but the company will not try to earn any return from this awesome proving ground. Which is fine as far as it goes — Google has acknowledged it wants to do Petri-dish stuff.

I just wonder if this blue-sky, Googlebit-per-second experiment is something that policymakers should take their cues from.

Check out what Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had to say: “Google’s announcement today amounts to a nationwide competition for communities to step up and make the case for what a next-generation network could do for them and then show America what is possible. Google is not the only company with the know-how and capacity to build this kind of network, but somebody had to go first. Maybe network providers with different ideas for what is possible will step up as well.”

Or, maybe ISPs that are in business to make money from broadband will decide that building out insanely super-fast networks — that are far beyond any useful purpose today and meet no market demand — doesn’t really make sense.

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