In Google We Trust

For the second time in as many months, Google appears to have shown political leadership where our own government, the US government, has been lacking. Last month, it was with the standoff with China and last night, it was with the announcement that it would take a leadership position on how the US should think about broadband: 1 Gigabyte, yes, that’s Gigabyte, to the house and no less.

For months now, the FCC has been working on defining a broadband roadmap for the country but sadly, in discussion with people both inside and outside the FCC, it appears that the agency has gotten kidnapped by the telecommunication industry, often times parroting lines that come straight out of the industry’s mouthpieces.

While the plan is not due for another month, I can tell you that, as late as a few weeks ago, the FCC was thinking of setting the definition of national broadband at a laughable speed of 3Mb per second, a speed so low that some of the larger providers don’t even offer it anymore. The reasoning is that it would be achievable and good enough for most applications today.

In December, at a conference sponsored by the Aspen Institute, I challenged members of the broadband task force to think more aggressively and was presented with a barrage of “well, in our studies of international broadband trends, we have not find a single use case, outside of P2P piracy, for higher speed networks.” I countered that this type of thinking, had it been applied to the year 1999 would have made 56k the rule of the land. To think based on today’s limitations is to limit tomorrow’s opportunities and it appears that our government is about to do it again.

At the time, I did not have any examples of potential use for a higher speed network (and mind you, I was advocating 100Mbps to the home, not 1Gbps as Google is) but fortunately, with the success of Avatar in movie theaters, and the unveiling of bluRay in 3D and TV sets and TV stations in 3D, it appears that potential use case for those types of networks could develop in the form of consumer generated 3D high definition video stream (with, of course, high definition audio accompanying it). Such a model could require a substantial amount of data to be pushed down the pipes and far exceed what our networks currently can do.

Enters Google, a company that lives and dies by the amount of internet access available. Their products cannot exist without an open internet (an example of how a less open internet access affects Google can be seen in today’s report that Iran banned access to Gmail) and increasingly, their ambitions require faster internet access, whether it is to offer video, telephony, or other services. An efficient internet and, increasingly, a fast internet, is what they need to grow. Having tried playing nice, it looks like the company is now deciding to take the gloves off in its fight with the telecommunication industry by throwing the gauntlet down.

It’s not the first time Google decides to throw its weight, and substantial cash hoard, around to help it accomplish longer term changes in the telecoms industry. Three years ago, the company managed to get wireless phone networks to be more open by threatening to enter the market.

Sadly, it appears that our government is more beholden to the interest of the telecommunication industry than it is to helping the country regain its leadership role in the technology world. The last decade has seen the US stumble from a leadership position in broadband speed to not even making the top 10. And our government is about to support this anemic state with a policy that will fail to really provide the country with what it needs to remain competitive.

Google, on the other hand, is looking to the future and sees that, unless something radical is done, the country will slip further behind. By announcing that they will deliver 1 Gbps to half a million homes, they hope to get the competitive juices flowing into the telecoms industry. If I were them, I would shoot for high concentration places like New York or San Francisco to demonstrate the capabilities at a faster rate and hit right into some of the most competitive markets, potentially hurting the margins of telecommunication companies if they don’t play along.

There are, of course, many challenges to Google becoming a broadband provider. The company already knows a lot about users and becoming a broadband provider would give them access to even more information, potentially creating concerns about privacy. There is also something clearly self-serving to Google’s approach in this but, as was the case with its earlier stance on China, its interest seem to be aligned with the consumer’s. I wish the government would react in the same way.

Update (February 16, 2009): It looks like the FCC is finally starting to move in the right direction on the bandwidth issue.

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