Rhyming schemes aside, news this week has revealed that Google may be getting into the internet service provider business, adding yet another layer of domination to our digital lifestyle. However, before we worry that Google is on the war path to control everything we know, remember that their motto is “Don’t Be Evil” and it shows here. Google isn’t extending their corporate arm into the frustrating and draconian world of content delivery for profit or to extort their customers, they’re doing it to show how other companies should lay down broadband internet access in the future, and maybe even encourage the Obama Administration to be more proactive in improving our broadband infrastructure.
Google’s plan is actually nothing incredibly revolutionary. What is exciting is that now a company is actually doing the obvious. Google plans to begin laying down fiber-to-the-home broadband (FTTH) by hopefully next year. Right now they are working on finding towns willing to participate in trials and acquiring stimulus money to finance their roll out. FTTH is similar to Verizon’s FiOS system implement in many of their key markets and involves running fiber optic cable directly to homes for incredible speed. Most systems like cable and DSL only use fiber cable up to a “node” which may service as much as 10000 homes with copper wiring running the last mile. FTTP has an advantage of incredible speed (Google’s roll out may run as high as 1Gbps) but is also remarkably expensive as it requires companies to literally dig trenches to homes that require service in order to get the wires to the house. Verizon has had to invest 10s of Billions of dollars in their FiOS system in order to make it practical. The fact that Google is promising 1Gbps is really remarkable. Verizon’s FiOS maxes at 50 Mbps download (about 1/20th of the speed), ADSL tops out at much lower speeds, and even DOCSIS 3.0 cable networks like Comcast top out at 50Mbps with a theoretical maximum still below 1Gbps (1000Mbps).
Perhaps even more interesting than Google’s remarkable promised speed is their “Open Access” policy. In effect, Google is opening their fiber network to any other service provider. While an end customer will still be receiving data over the same physical layer, they can still buy access to that network from a range of service providers. Such a move is a dynamic and impressive change from current systems where companies stake their claim in certain regions and cities, spend billions on building their infrastructure, and effectively lock in customers to using their system or nothing else. In Atlanta, if you want cable internet, it has to be from Comcast. They’re the only ones that have the physical infrastructure. If you want Verizon, you’ll have to use their DSL system or pay for them to dig fiber to your home. With Google’s proposed system, they will maintain the physical layer of the network and allow companies to buy shares of the network. Customers then just decide which company they want to be their service provider based on pricing and any additional incentives given buy the company i.e. support quality, anti-virus software, rebates etc. Such a system is conducive to healthy competition where one company can not gain an unfair advantage over another by having a more robust physical network that blocks out other competitors. It also offers customers multiple options with ease unlike current ISPs that control entire regions with no other affordable alternatives. Google would act as the maintenance company to keep the physical network intact and updated. Since Google would not be directly delivering content, they act as a third-party that is isolated from the politics of bickering ISPs, allowing them to just concentrate on the quality of the network.
In many ways, Google is acting as the market-based version of what many proponents want out of a government provided internet system. They act as a neutral party to provide content without bias or worry of corporate bottom line. The benefit of having Google do this and not government is two-fold. It alleviates the worries of conservatives who fear that this would be another way Big Brother is entering our lives; and it removes any moral or ethical issues a government body would be faced with in terms of content delivery and network management i.e pornography, piracy, P2P networks etc. Google does not have to play a role in the moral measure of content being delivered, nor the ethical issues of blocking or encouraging certain content. A government has the need to protect its people, and often in our coddling society, that means sheltering us from “objectionable” content on the basis of morality. Since Google doesn’t have to play Morality Police, it leaves net neutrality preserved and in much better light.
It really seems like a novel solution to our internet woes, and it seems strange that there has been no other start up in the past to try this as extensively as Google is. Granted, it will require a massive investment of capital not easily come by, so Google seems like a logical choice. But having neutral corporations maintain simply the physical network and leaving obnoxious politics to the ISPs “renting” out your network seems like a great way to maintain equal access and fair competition. And it is vitally important for someone to lead the way on improving our nation’s internet infrastructure. The Stimulus Package allocated over $7 Billion to improve our systems, but so far we have seen little in the way of improvement or initiative from the government or ISPs. It’s about time someone moved forward and moved us closer to an all-fiber network. Here’s hoping that Google’s trials are successful and expand, because damn it to hell if I don’t want 1Gbps access!