On Wednesday, Google announced that it would be experimenting with building an ultra-high-speed broadband network -- delivering up to 1 gigabyte of data per second, which is about 20 times as fast as what most broadband subscribers get today -- serving somewhere between 50,000 and 500,000 lucky consumers in a small number of communities to be named later. "Imagine sitting in a rural health clinic, streaming three-dimensional medical imaging over the Web and discussing a unique condition with a specialist in New York," Google says. "Or downloading a high-definition, full-length feature film in less than five minutes. Or collaborating with classmates around the world while watching live 3-D video of a university lecture."
Google will build the network, then let any Internet service provider (ISP) sell service through that pipe -- the way it was back when everyone got their Internet through phone lines. As PC World put it, "Google hopes that the new model will fire up the business of being a small, local ISP. That can only be good. The regulators have allowed the huge ISPs (AT&T, Verizon et al.) to dominate the broadband business with sheer scale, forcing the smaller guys out. Imagine buying internet service from Bob’s ISP at a reasonable price."
It's hard not to have mixed feelings about Google. On the one hand, they have so much money, and the ability to go into any new area and dominate it in a relatively short amount of time, that the danger of monopolistic practice is always there. On the other hand, when they debut a new product, it often seems to work better and be more thoughtfully designed than what came before it. They seem to stick by their "Don't Be Evil" philosophy most of the time. And unlike most corporations, they're willing to undertake projects like this that aren't designed to generate profits in the next quarter.
So what is Google trying to get out of this experiment? Most observers are saying that they aren't interested in becoming your ISP, or in actually producing the pipes that go to everyone's home. It could simply be that with their virtually limitless resources, the company asked itself, "What would we like America's Internet experience to look like?", and the answer was in part that not only should everyone have really fast broadband but that the pipes should be open to multiple service providers. And obviously, anything that gets people using the Web more is good for Google. They're hoping to spur innovation in both hardware and applications. It's hard to see a downside, particularly if it makes the telecom companies uncomfortable by creating competition -- the lack of which is one of the main reasons we lag so terribly in the speed of our broadband. And progressive groups that work on these issues, like Free Press, have reacted fairly positively, which is reassuring.
Next month, the Federal Communications Commission will be releasing its plan for universal broadband. Like many things, achieving that goal will take a combination of government investment and regulation, and private-sector innovation. It's a tall order, but it's starting to look like more of a possibility all the time.
-- Paul Waldman