Why everyone wants Google's high-speed Internet access

Some 1,100 communities are vying for a network that delivers high-speed Internet access, courtesy of Google – though most aren't sure exactly what benefits it will deliver.

Michael Randolph/Bay City Times/AP
As an enticement to Google, the city renamed one of its streets. The change will be permanent if Google selects Bay City, Michigan.

Wooing Google became something of a national pastime after the Internet search giant said in February it would build an experimental, superfast broadband network somewhere in America.

In Duluth, Minn., the mayor leapt into Lake Superior's icy waters to try to win Google's favor. The mayor of Sarasota, Fla., swam with sharks. In Topeka, Kan., officials changed the city's name to Google for the month of March. Cities held rallies, started Facebook campaigns, and created online odes to Google to boost their chances of becoming the test bed for a fiber-optics network and, perhaps, the most wired place in the world.

More than 1,100 US communities applied to become Google's guinea pig. In coming months, Google says it will weigh the merits of each bid, visit applicant cities, and consider logistics. By year's end, it will decide on a location (or locations) to launch its project, which promises to deliver the Internet to as many as 500,000 people at speeds 100 times faster than the average connection.

All the excitement around Google's fiber-optics experiment speaks to the appetite for faster broadband as Americans come to rely on the Internet as their primary source of communication and entertainment.

"Our goal is to experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone," said Minnie Ingersoll, product manager on Google's alternative access team, in an e-mail. "We want to see what developers and consumers can do with ultrahigh speeds, like creating new bandwidth-intensive 'killer apps' and services, or other uses we can't yet imagine."

Google's 1-gigabit-per-second (Gbps) network promises to raise the bar for the future of broadband. For US consumers, whose average download speeds hover at about 5 megabits per second (Mbps), the switch would be like trading in a jalopy for a jet and allow for near-instant access to full-length movies and games. But the real benefactors, experts say, would be universities, hospitals, and businesses that could start using data-heavy applications via the Internet at lightning speeds.

"It's going to have tremendous benefits in terms of showing what can be done," says Lauren Weinstein, cofounder of People for Internet Responsibility (PFIR). "Right now it isn't obvious to everyone what you do with a gigabit pipe. Some of the more important aspects of this will be how institutions, such as hospitals, will use this."

In recent years, America has lagged behind other countries in investments in faster broadband. South Korea, considered the world's most-wired country, wants to boost its connections to 1 Gbps within five years. Australia intends to offer broadband at 100 Mbps within a decade, and Finland by 2016, according to a Brookings Institution report.

To try to ensure that the United States keeps pace, the Obama administration has made broadband access a national priority and Congress has approved $7.2 billion to expand high-speed networks. In the National Broadband Plan, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released in March, the government aims to spur competition among broadband providers and to push connection speeds to 100 Mbps for at least 100 million US households by 2020.

"Broadband is indispensable infrastructure for the 21st century," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski at a recent press conference to promote the broadband initiative. "It's already becoming the foundation of our economy and our democracy."

While major broadband providers in the US invested some $60 billion last year to upgrade their networks, critics blame sluggish yet expensive broadband services on the lack of consumer choice in the Internet service provider (ISP) marketplace. The FCC seems to agree: Increased competition for broadband is a theme that runs through its plan.

Google's move into broadband, these critics say, could compel some providers to bulk up their networks. Google says it doesn't intend to stay in the ISP business, but rather wants to learn from building a fiber-to-the-home network and to share that knowledge with the industry.

Of course, Google stands to gain in the long run. The more that people are online with faster connections, the more likely they are to connect with Google – and to help Google establish a base for new online ventures.

Still, Google will build the new network at no cost to the winning city. In making its choice, the company will assess, among other things, "the level of community support, local resources, weather conditions, approved construction methods and local regulatory issues," writes Google's Ms. Ingersoll.

It's classic research and development, says PFIR's Mr. Weinstein, in the vein of the old Bell Laboratories. "They want to push the industry, even by demonstrating that this is practical and what sorts of costs are involved in doing it," he says.

But the pilot project has its limits. While Google's pockets are deep enough to push the bounds of broadband expansion (it recorded $6.5 billion in profits in 2009), telecom firms that still use copper lines for Internet service may find that bringing fiber-optic cable to homes is too big a financial burden. Verizon Communications, which spent $23 billion on its fiber-optic FiOS network for 18 million homes, recently said it is slowing down the expansion of its high-speed service.

"We understand that much work is being done to expand and improve broadband service ... but there's more work to be done," writes Ingersoll. "We're not pretending to have all the answers here. Our goal is to make a meaningful contribution to the shared goal of delivering better and faster Internet for everyone."

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