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.