Google makes a push into super-fast broadband access

Google, originally just a search site, already has tentacles reaching into most corners of the online world.
Google, originally just a search site, already has tentacles reaching into most corners of the online world. (Mark Lennihan/associated Press)
By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

Google staked a claim on another corner of the technology universe Wednesday, saying it now wants to turbocharge your Internet connection.

The company said it will begin in certain test markets to offer broadband service capable of delivering bits and bytes at speeds 100 times what most Americans now receive from their cable and telephone companies.

The announcement is the latest in a recent series of moves by Google that appear calculated to help the Internet juggernaut leapfrog the existing technology establishment to position itself for the future.

As computer users spend more time communicating on social networks such as Facebook, Google this week unveiled Google Buzz, which aspires to knit together a variety of social networks into one grand collective.

Last month, Google released its first smartphone in a bid to challenge the way the wireless industry sells handsets. The move came as the company experiments with Google Voice, a service that allows people to choose a new phone number and relay calls to their other numbers.

Google grabbed global headlines with its declaration that it might spurn China over Internet freedom concerns, and it has been a leading proponent in Washington for "net neutrality" rules that would prevent online access providers from discriminating against those who would create certain content for the Web.

In each initiative, Google has said it is trying not to upend potential rivals but to encourage innovation in hopes of expanding use of the Internet. It held to that claim in describing its new broadband initiative on Wednesday.

"We are not getting into the [Internet service provider] or broadband business," said Rick Whitt, telecom and media counsel at Google. "This is a business-model nudge and an innovation nudge."

Nevertheless, analysts said Google's foray into yet another line of business is not without risk. It is likely to raise suspicion from the telecommunications industry's reigning incumbents, much as Google's development of its phone frayed relations with Apple.

And the varied initiatives threaten to compromise the company's focus on its successful core business -- Internet search. Several analysts pointed to the examples of Microsoft and AOL, which suffered setbacks when they spread themselves thin

Others, though, said Google's diverse interests support a single, overarching mission: helping the company sell ads for search queries.

"All these peripheral activities are intended to make people use the Internet more, and then Google stands to make more money," said Carl Howe, director of consumer research at Yankee Group. "It sounds so simple, but it is very clever."

Google is already responsible for about 10 percent of all Internet traffic, Howe added.

In experimenting with broadband access, the company said, Google would create networks in a select number of communities across the country to deliver Internet service directly to homes at 1 gigabit per second. Google plans to request proposals from municipalities to determine what areas would be part of the experiment. It said it would pay for the construction and operation of the networks and charge consumers rates that would be competitive with other service providers.

The trials would involve relatively compact areas, the company said, with the networks reaching at least 50,000 and up to 500,000 people. The District has a population of about 591,000. Whether communities choose to participate is likely to depend on the details of the program. Craig Moffett, an analyst at Sanford Bernstein, said some municipalities may pass if the project requires a sizable ongoing funding commitment, especially at a time when public finances have been hurt by the economic downturn.

But the move is strategic in other ways, analysts said. By showcasing an ultra-fast broadband network, the company highlights its push for better consumer applications and shows support for the Obama administration's proposal to bring broadband Internet access to all U.S. homes.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski lauded the announcement.

"Big broadband creates big opportunities," he said in a statement. "This significant trial will provide an American testbed for the next generation of innovative, high-speed Internet apps, devices and services."

Currently, some of the fastest connections through cable, DSL and fiber access cap at about 20 to 50 megabits a second. Google said that with speeds reaching 1 gigabit a second, the company can experiment with applications that would allow a rural resident to exchange 3-D videos with a doctor in Los Angeles. Full-feature high-definition movies could be downloaded in five minutes.

Google, a proponent of open-access policies, said its networks would give consumers a choice of multiple service providers. And Google said it would not favor its content over others.

"We hope this will serve as an example to other network operators that the open model should not be feared but should be emulated," said Markham Erickson, executive director of the Open Internet Coalition. "Profit and openness are mistakenly seen to be in conflict; in fact, we believe they are synergistic and amplifying."

Google has been experimenting with broadband service for years. It has been running a free Wi-Fi network in its headquarters city of Mountain View, Calif. It is also advocating for the FCC to use unlicensed wireless spectrum, called "white spaces," for broadband services.

And the company has been quietly buying up unused fiber-optic lines for years, a move that some observes suspected would lead to just the sort of announcement Google made Wednesday.

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