In most parts of the country, you're limited to just a couple of broadband providers. That limits your options for switching providers, which means it's easy for your ISP to charge you higher rates or make your life difficult when you're trying to reach customer support. The illustration below, which is based off of government data, gives a general idea of the problem:
But 10 years from now, it's conceivable that the whole picture will have changed. That's because more and more companies -- even from industries you wouldn't expect -- are getting into the business of offering Internet access. Not long ago, it was your cellular carrier selling 2G data, then 3G and now LTE. It was hard to imagine back then why you needed a data connection if you were just talking and texting, but now we know better. More recently, companies like Google and AT&T have embarked on a race to see who can connect more cities to high-speed fiber optic cables that can deliver speeds 100 times the national average.
Marc Andreessen, the Silicon Valley investor and the creator of the first widely used Web browser, thinks it won't be long until most places have three, four or even five ways to connect to the Internet. You've got your traditional broadband providers in the cable companies. Then you've got your other traditional providers in the telecom industry. You've got your wireless companies, some of whom envision serving mobile data to you at speeds comparable to fixed wireline cable. And then you've got new entrants like Google Fiber, which has the luxury of having seen how all the other providers approached the problem and can now think of ways to do it differently.
In fact, Google Fiber could become so good at rethinking the broadband industry that it winds up being a global phenomenon, says Andreessen. (I'm a little more skeptical.)
"It's a really good business for Google," Andreessen said in an interview this week. "The way to think about Google is that it's not just search anymore. It's an entire suite of online services -- including Maps, the Google operating system on the phone, it's the Google browser. And so, taking it all the way to the network means that your entire Internet service from the connectivity all the way up to the search engine is from Google."
Much like how Apple keeps tight control over everything from its product design to its manufacturing process to the end-user experience, Google wants to play a similar role in every stage of your Internet experience.
This might sound a little scary. Indeed, a Google filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission this week indicated that the company is interested in serving ads to Internet-connected cars. So, potentially, not only will Google have a say in how you get online and in the applications you use once you're there, but the company is likely to follow you as the Internet leaps out of your phone and laptop and into the other gadgets and machines we interact with, as well.
Still, despite the prospect of Google someday becoming another connectivity behemoth like Comcast or Verizon, one thing sets it apart. For now, at least, it has no interest in creating Internet "fast lanes" or signing paid interconnection agreements with companies like Netflix. In a blog post Wednesday night, Google took a swipe at those incumbent Internet providers, saying that Fiber offers content companies the ability to connect to its subscribers for free.
"We don’t make money from peering or colocation," wrote Google, using the term for allowing companies like Netflix to store their videos inside Google's own network for faster delivery. "Since people usually only stream one video at a time, video traffic doesn’t bog down or change the way we manage our network in any meaningful way — so why not help enable it?"
As Google Fiber spreads, chances are it will try to promote those values as a way of standing out from the crowd.