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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

February 10, 2010 at 9:48 AM

Google dabbling in broadband service, Seattle intrigued

Yesterday Google showed how it wants to be like Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft.

Today it’s trying to be like Comcast. The company said it’s going to offer ultrafast fiber broadband service on a trial basis “in a small number of trial locations across the United States,” the company said in its announcement:

We’re planning to build and test ultra high-speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations across the United States. We’ll deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today with 1 gigabit per second, fiber-to-the-home connections.

It’s a test bed more than a leap into full fledged competition with broadband service providers but perhaps it will prod companies such as Qwest to improve their networks. Google’s already tried with mixed results to show telecom companies how it’s done by selling its Nexus One phone directly to consumers.

But the broadband trial may be less dramatic than it sounds. It won’t be free – Google said it will charge “a competitive price” – and only a tiny portion of the U.S. will be affected.

Google said it’s limiting the trials to between 50,000 and 500,000 people in areas where municipalities are willing to cooperate in the effort. That suggests the company may piggyback on existing municipal fiber networks, as opposed to building much new infrastructure.

A source told the Washington Post that Google doesn’t plan to widely offer service beyond the trial:

“A source who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the company doesn’t currently have plans to expand beyond the initial tests but will evaluate as the tests progress.”

Google’s done similar testing with a free WiFi network it operates in its hometown of Mountain View, Calif.

The company was also a major investor in Clearwire, the Kirkland provider of wireless broadband.

Google’s announcement said it’s particularly interested in exploring what developers can do with ultrafast service and how it can improve the way fiber networks are deployed. The company’s also making a political statement amid the net neutrality debate, stating that its network will provide open access to multiple service providers.

Seattle’s been looking for companies willing to build a fiber network in the city for years and it’s a stated priority of the new mayor, but he’s said the goal is to provide service throughout the city.

Partnering with Google may have cachet to some but it seems likely to further delay the city’s effort to develop a permanent, city-wide fiber service. Ultrafast fiber is already provided to portions of a few select neighborhoods – by Qwest – while the rest of the city’s limited to DSL, Comcast or Broadstripe.

Still, Google’s announcement “burned up the email this morning,” said Bill Schrier, the city’s chief technology officer.

Schrier said the city’s looking into Google’s project but there hasn’t been a decision made yet whether to submit a request to participate, he said. Google’s asking interested cities to submit a request for information by March 26.

Schrier’s wondering if Google’s going through municipalities because it wants to get franchise authority to offer a triple-play service with TV, phone and broadband services.

That makes me wonder if Google’s exploring the regulatory infrastructure as much as the technical challenge of delivering broadband services.

Maybe the interesting question isn’t whether Google can connect houses to the Internet.

It’s what sort of services the company would like to offer through fiber to the home. My guess is the package would include Google Internet Service with an iGoogle-like portal, voice service via Google Talk and Voice, and high-def video through YouTube.

Comments | Topics: broadband, Comcast, Google

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