Why is Google building a fiber network now?

Like you, I thought Google was a search company. Why do they want to build an experimental network and sell me broadband services?[tweetmeme source="googleavl" only_single=false]

1. Google needs lots of data so they can organize it.

Google doesn’t want to be a broadband provider (my opinion), but they do want to manage and organize the world’s data.

That business mandate puts them in direct conflict with anyone who limits the flow of information that Google seeks to manage. Google needs you to take full advantage of your digital connections to the world so that they have a profitable job – with room to grow – making up clever ways to organize your data. The most basic way they do this now is with search. Another is with maps. And so on.

But what if we stopped making so much data? That is exactly what is happening in the U.S. – only we didn’t stop creating data. We just stopped adding the capacity to transmit it, which, from Google’s point of view is the same thing.

2. Our slow-ish broadband network means there is less for Google to organize, potentially capping Google’s growth.

US Broadband: Slow as a turtleIn the U.S, during the last 10 years, broadband companies have been relatively content with their profits, consumers have had only one choice or two choices for service (cable vs dsl), and no outside software has been desirable enough to make everyone want anything different (in the way that the iPod made everyone ditch CDs).

How slow are we?  In 2007, the average advertised bandwidth speed in Japan was 96 Mbps. My Charter connection at home right now is supposed to be 5 Mbps but rarely exceed 3 Mbps. You can see for yourself by comparing broadband costs and bandwidth among countries or examining this article.

Or better yet, test your current connection and see what your bandwidth number really is.

It looks to me like we are somewhere between 15th and 23rd in the world (and falling) in terms of broadband.

This problem is most acute at the so-called “last mile,” which includes the connection from the pole to your house.  Also during the last 10 years the speed and capacity of the backbone, aka the bigger cables between cities, has increased in speed pretty dramatically.  When you read about “dark fiber,” you are often reading about the unused capacity that lies just beyond your yard, past the pole as you head upstream from your cable or phone jack. Not only has your current broadband provider refused to consider alternate technologies like fiber optics, they’ve gone ahead and planned some upgrades that use their existing cable technology in order to appease a part of their customer base.  Those upgrades are detailed in the just released National Broadband plan.  One of the problems with that plan is that it ignores the best technology – fiber optics – which the rest of the world is increasingly using.

3. Google enters the market with a better plan in order to spur competition among existing broadband companies.

Google fiber: fast and competitiveGoogle  wants to shake things up by building something better than what you are used to.  And not just a little bit, either – they want to build an open network with 1) much better speed and service than you have now AND 2) they want to do it using better technology (that’s the fiber part of the project) AND 3) they want to use a different business model than your current provider.  It is a lot to get your head around, I know.  Those three things, taken together, are what make Google’s fiber project so exciting.

The open network is the hardest of the three ideas to grasp, since most people in the U.S. have never had one.  Normally, it would work like the street in front of your house – tax payers pay for it, anyone can use it, and some of those uses allow us to do profitable things.  The open network model is in use in other parts of the world and open networks are quite successful*.  They are usually built, like roads, with at least partial taxpayer funding. In this case, Google is proposing that they pay for the road on Asheville’s behalf.

4. If they wait, they could lose a lot of money.

If they wait, they have less data to manage. This is because the U.S. just released the national Broadband plan, and the plan is not good enough.  The plan settled and accommodated existing industry at the expense of innovation and competition**.  Our new broadband plan does not require or even suggest open networks, it advocates speed increases that are small in relation to what technology allows, and, generally speaking, it keeps the old way of doing business alive and well for the current broadband companies. Google, who had input into the national Broadband plan, no doubt saw this coming and intends for this experiment to help create an alternate path to a better network.

And that’s why, right now, they are running a competition to build a fiber optic network (speed and reliability fixed), to your door (last mile problem fixed), with an open network (competition problem fixed, control shifted back to the customers).  And they will build it with their own money.

-Clark Mackey

  • * Asheville is already one of the few places in the country with a functioning open fiber network – ERC Broadband. Open networks are opposed by your current broadband provider, but strongly supported by some very smart people. One is Vint Cerf who is widely known as father of the Internet
  • ** In the National Broadband Plan, we settled for slower speeds 10 years in the future than some countries have now. Ch 1 page 2. The plan has a goal of 100 Mbps, much slower than Google’s proposed speed of 1000 Mbps.  We accommodated by obfuscating the decision to go away from open networks, allowing current companies to justify exclusive control of the wires because of the high cost of installing them (Ch 4 page 36 and 37).  Roads are expensive too, but I note that we have found ways to build them without requiring tolls at the end of our driveways.

A great post that explains the regulatroy landscape and the actions of individual broadband companies:

This article is part of a series.  You might also like:

List of sources:

  1. Test your own broadband speed right now from the U.S. Federal government.
  2. Comparing broadband costs and speeds by country from the OECD.
  3. US 15 years behind South Korea from The Register.
  4. Behind the scenes with a large open source network in Amsterdam from Ars Technica.
  5. Google corporate “mission statement” page from Google.
  6. Google out to foil ISP’s and fuel innovation
  7. Crazy Google out to scare your cable company into speeding up from Silicon Alley Insider.
  8. The National Broadband plan from the U.S. Federal government.
  9. Will the National Broadband plan come up short? from NPR.
  10. Google and the FCC see America’s lagging broadband problems differently from NPR
  11. The open Internet; What it is and why it matters by Vint Cerf
  12. Last Mile from Wikipedia.
  13. Dark Fiber from Wikipedia.
  14. Open Network Architecture from Wikipedia.

Creative Commons images:

  1. lots of stuff: http://www.flickr.com/photos/misocrazy/280388547/
  2. turtle: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mcouper/3992351812/
  3. rocket: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/2692694983/
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4 Responses to Why is Google building a fiber network now?

  1. Thom says:

    Great article. A lot of good information.

  2. Jason W Hill says:

    Great article. Google wants all desktop activities to be moved to the internet. That means any software that you have running on a PC or phone would be on the net. That means applications are on the net and if Google has their way they will be free (much of what they produce out of Google labs is free). But you will have to deal with advertising. But we have to do that today on most websites so it is not a big deal. It also means that the data too would be stored on the net. Instead of having a PC at home with the need for independent storage, software, and operating system, all those things will reside on the net.

    This gets back to the eyeballs on the internet goal. Having as many people on the internet is their goal. Giving them software, services, and storage is the exchange for selling advertising.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Why is Google building a fiber network now? « Google Fiber Asheville : Official Website -- Topsy.com

  4. Peter Brezny says:

    Nice work Clark.

    Thanks for boiling down the particulars. Open networks will also help protect users from the real possibility of packet prioritization for companies who plunk down the most cash.

    The more secrets we have, the worse off we are.

    The internet is largely a level playing field and a vast resource, anything that contributes to keeping it this way has my vote.

    Openness is good. Bring it on Google.

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