Google Fiber and the FCC National Broadband Plan

I’ve puzzled over Google’s Fiber project ever since they announced it. It seemed too big, too hubristic (even for a company that’s already big and has earned the right to hubris)–and also not a business Google would want to be in. Providing the “last mile” of Internet service is a high cost/low payoff business that I’m glad I escaped (a friend and I seriously considered starting an ISP back in ’92, until we said “How would we deal with customers?”).

But the FCC’s announcement of their plans to widen broadband Internet access in the US (the “National Broadband Strategy”) puts Google Fiber in a new context. The FCC’s plans are cast in terms of upgrading and expanding the network infrastructure. That’s a familiar debate, and Google is a familiar participant. This is really just an extension of the “network neutrality” debate that has been going on with fits and starts over the past few years.

Google has been outspoken in their support for the idea that network carriers shouldn’t discriminate between different kinds of traffic. The established Internet carriers largely have opposed network neutrality, arguing that they can’t afford to build the kind of high-bandwidth networks that are required for delivering video and other media. While the debate over network neutrality has quieted down recently, the issues are still floating out there, and no less important. Will the networks of the next few decades be able to handle whatever kinds of traffic we want to throw at it?

In the context of network neutrality, and in the context of the FCC’s still unannounced (and certain to be controversial) plans, Google Fiber is the trump card. It’s often been said that the Internet routes around damage. Censorship is one form of damage; non-neutral networks are another. Which network would you choose? One that can’t carry the traffic you want, or one that will? Let’s get concrete: if you want video, would you choose a network that only delivers real-time video from providers who have paid additional bandwidth charges to your carrier? Google’s core business is predicated upon the availability of richer and richer content on the net. If they can ensure that all the traffic that people want can be carried, they win; if they can’t, if the carriers mediate what can and can’t be carried, they lose. But Google Fiber ensures that our future networks will indeed be able to “route around damage”, and makes what the other carriers do irrelevant. Google Fiber essentially tells the carriers “If you don’t build the network we need, we will; you will either move with the times, or you won’t survive.”

Looked at this way, non-network-neutrality requires a weird kind of collusion. Deregulating the carriers by allowing them to charge premium prices for high bandwidth services, only works as long as all the carriers play the same game, and all raise similar barriers against high-bandwidth traffic. As soon as one carrier says “Hey, we have a bigger vision; we’re not going to put limits on what you want to do,” the game is over. You’d be a fool not to use that carrier. You want live high-definition video conferencing? You got it. You want 3D video, requiring astronomical data rates? You want services we haven’t imagined yet? You can get those too. AT&T and Verizon don’t like it? Tough; it’s a free market, and if you offer a non-competitive product, you lose. The problem with the entrenched carriers’ vision is that, if you discriminate against high-bandwidth services, you’ll kill those services off before they can even be invented.

The U.S. is facing huge problems with decaying infrastructure. At one time, we had the best highway system, the best phone system, the most reliable power grid; no longer. Public funding hasn’t solved the problem; in these tea-party days, nobody’s willing to pay the bills, and few people understand why the bills have to be as large as they are. (If you want some insight into the problems of decaying infrastructure, here’s an op-ed piece on Pennsylvania’s problems repairing its bridges.) Neither has the private sector, where short-term gain almost always wins over the long-term picture.

But decaying network infrastructure is a threat to Google’s core business, and they aren’t going to stand by idly. Even if they don’t intend to become a carrier themselves, as Eric Schmidt has stated, they could easily change their minds if the other carriers don’t keep up. There’s nothing like competition (or even the threat of competition) to make the markets work.

We’re looking at a rare conjunction. It’s refreshing to see a large corporation talk about creating the infrastructure they need to prosper–even if that means getting into a new kind of business. To rewrite the FCC Chairman’s metaphor, it’s as if GM and Ford were making plans to upgrade the highway system so they could sell better cars. It’s an approach that’s uniquely Googley; it’s the infrastructure analog to releasing plugins that “fix” Internet Explorer for HTML5. “If it’s broken and you won’t fix it, we will.” That’s a good message for the carriers to hear. Likewise, it’s refreshing to see the FCC, which has usually been a dull and lackluster agency, taking the lead in such a critical area. An analyst quoted by the Times says “One again, the FCC is putting the service providers on the spot.” As well they should. A first-class communications network for all citizens is essential if the U.S. is going to be competitive in the coming decades. It’s no surprise that Google and the FCC understands this, but I’m excited by their commitment to building it.

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  • Baylink

    Excellent piece.

    Remember that whether Google becomes “a carrier” is orthogonal to — though compatible with — whether they subsidize last-mile deployment.

    Being a *carrier* means they show up in the meet-me room *of that last-mile deployment*. Separate issue.

    And yes, I’m a muni-fiber cheerleader, and that’s what it sounds like Google’s pushing, from the information I’ve been able to get so far.

    More power to them; FTTH *is* a natural monopoly.

  • bex

    interesting… although, a Google branded ISP could engender greater loyalty than the current crop of — mostly maligned — carriers.

  • 00001001

    I would love to see Google become an ISP and I really believe they would get millions of customers. I’m really tired of the status quo and the lack of competition. Europe and the world is just kicking are butts!!

  • Jeffrey Anthony

    Google doesn’t appear to me like they are looking to become an ISP in the typical sense we think about it today. They simply need an aptly sized sandbox to test the possibilities of a gigabit connection to the average home. In my opinion they should have done one small area in each state or some similar testing procedure; but as you say, the cost was likely limiting, even for Google.

    I’d gamble on Google using the research here to figure out how to better use the old television spectrum to bring us Internet infrastructure 3.0.

  • geryhostone

    Can someone explain to me what Google Fiber is?
    I’ve been hearing a lot about it but I don’t really understand what it is.
    denta smile md

  • Marco A.

    Google Fiber is a test system for show, as in: Hey FCC, look, it is possible to build gigabit fiber with network neutrality, so quit letting the AT&T, Verizon, Comcast (et al) lobbyists and lawyers tell you otherwise.

    Yes, non-network-neutrality does require a strange kind of collusion: the oligopoly of incumbents we have today. Congress is not going to get behind meaningful change unless they’re embarrassed into it.

    Until a test system is built, it’s a matter of debate whether it can work. Once it’s been shown to work, especially at a reasonable cost, then the race is on to deploy it nationally. Incumbents know they can’t hide forever, only stall. Google is just forcing their hand.

  • Shawn Hill

    Local entrepreneur, Shawn Hill, helped to convince city of Longview leaders early that Google fiber was a big deal. Google will take dark fiber into strong consideration when selecting their fiber testbeds. It would be smart for Google to test in multiple smaller communities with existing unused fiber optics underground. Residents of Longview have no options for fiber to-the-home. In fact, DSL is what most people use. We still have people down here dialing up true 56K-style.

  • Anonymous

    Great “Google on Main” photos and film footage can be found at
    Please give the photographer credit if you use them. Thanks.

    Greenville, South Carolina pulls off massive people-powered spectacle to lure Google Fiber

    Greenville, South Carolina, US – March 23, 2010 – In a collaborative community-based effort to bring Google’s new ultra-high speed experimental broadband – named Google Fiber – to Greenville, local residents formed what they are calling the “world’s first and largest people-powered Google chain,” dubbed “Google On Main,” in the heart of downtown Greenville.

    “There is no other city in the country that could have cut through the red tape and pulled this off in the two weeks it took us to do this,” said event organizer Aaron von Frank. “This showcases what’s so special about this city: we’ve got government officials, global businesses, tech entrepreneurs, artists, and engaged citizens that understand the important role we each play- and we all know how to work together as a team to pull off things that would be impossible in other cities.”

    Each participant who signed up for the event through the website was given a LED-powered, eco-friendly glow stick to spin overhead as they grouped into formations to spell the word “Google” in the middle of Falls Park next to Main Street. Helicopters, an airplane, and ground crews all took pictures and videos of the event- many of which have already been released online. Event planners estimate that the attendance exceeded the event’s maximum capacity of 2,000 people. “It’s a good thing we bought 200 extra glow sticks,” said Lehsa Griebel, the City of Greenville’s IT Director, and a Google On Main volunteer.

    The attendees and volunteers for Google On Main hope their efforts will help in their city’s overall initiative to show Google that Greenville, South Carolina is the best place in the country to test Google Fiber. Asked what he thought Greenville’s chances were of getting Google Fiber, von Frank added “I haven’t seen any efforts anywhere else in the country that can compare to what Greenville is doing. We don’t know what Google will ultimately decide, but we are feeling lucky.”

    Press inquiries can be directed to Aaron von Frank @ / (864) 252-6675.

  • Jason W Hill

    ASheville NC is in the running as well. We have developed some tools to track your town’s progress. So feel free to use them. I jsut hope you come in second.

    Jason Hill

  • Bucky Moog

    Here are over 140 reasons why I think Asheville, NC will win.

  • Shawn Hill

    Google Fiber is a better option than the National Broadband Plan. However Longview, Texas plans to pursue ultra-fast broadband either way.

  • George Hawley

    I am skeptical of Googl’s so-called plan.

    As you say, it is extremely expensive to get fiber to everyone’s home. Comcast spent $80 billion on fiber but the last mile is still bandwidth and protocol limited shared coaxial cable.

    Verizon recently announced that they are capping their FiOS build-out. Why not? They are spending a fortune up front on capital construction and hoping to connect customers to their network.

    As you well know, gigabit ethernet does not guarantee anything close to gigabit/second throughput. Hence the key words” up to” in Google’s uninformative pronouncements. Ethernet is a shared LAN protocol which gates the actual bandwidth achieved.

    On Verizon’s part I am happy to say that I am currently experiencing 18 Mb/s download speeds, somewhat in excess of their promised 15. I can watch Netflix movies in real time and see my grandchildren on Skype but don’t foresee much of a need for real time HD conferences yet, but I could be wrong.

    Google’s “plan” sounds more like hype than substance to me. I guess they plan to hire all of the out-of-work contruction people in the US and pay them minimum wage to dig up all the streets and yards to put in new fiber. What they can afford is a technical “sandbox”-a few towns that will put up with the ups and downs of amateur-run experiemental networks until Google gets the needed PR or other benefits from their investment and then moves on to internet enabled roadside billboards or sdome other business they are not yet in.

    If you know more about the details of their plan, I would be delighted to hear them

  • Great post, i believe G00gle has taste the bitter themselves. recently they facing too many law suit..

    i think it is time to let all those big boy to really have a insight of their own bzness model.

    happy new year guys..happy 2011