Google raises the bar

February 12, 2010

It’s been interesting to watch the reaction to Google’s announcement of open access Internet service to select American homes at a jaw-dropping 1 Gbps. That’s roughly a 100-fold increase in bandwidth from the maximum speeds offered by most of the larger internet service providers today.

We have the response from potential consumers of the service, as witnessed by the comments posted on various tech websites and mainstream media websites.  Consumers are giddy at the prospect. And doubtless many small businesses are currently dreaming up uses for such astonishing speed.  Which will be good for the economy. With increased speed will come increased Web-enabled collaboration and increased competitiveness.

The fact that there are currently no applications or services that would make full use of all that bandwidth is beside the point.  The history of technology is awash with bold statements on how much memory or bandwidth or processing power would be more than enough to last consumers for the foreseeable future.  All have proved wrong.  To paraphrase Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, I’m increasingly of the view that “If you build it, the needs will arise.”

Google’s intention is to build a testbed for applications and services not yet available. “We want to see what developers and users can do with ultra high-speeds, whether it’s creating new bandwidth-intensive ‘killer apps’ and services, or other uses we can’t yet imagine,” said Google’s announcement. “We’ll test new ways to build fiber networks; to help inform, and support deployments elsewhere, we’ll share key lessons learned with the world.”  Good for them.

They may discover that fiber to every home in the near- and medium-term is overkill, and that setting up one Wi-Fi hotspot for every ten houses does the job just fine. But if consumers start buying the hi-def 3D television sets that will soon be on the market, one node per ten houses might not be enough.  We won’t know until we try.

“This is mainly a P.R. stunt,” Scott Cleland, chairman of an organization that represents many telecommunications companies and their industry associations told the New York Times. “With one hand Google is urging regulations that stifle broadband deployment, and with the other hand, they are saying that telecom companies should spend hundreds of billions” to give ultrafast service to all Americans, Cleland said.

P.R. stunt to them; brilliant strategic move to me.  At a relatively low cost, successful pilot projects will be a cattle prod to an industry that has been woefully slow in keeping the country’s communications infrastructure competitive with the rest of the world.  And if the current service providers can’t rise to the occasion, they should get out of the way and let others take on the challenge.