Google in the broadband business? Hardly

Analysis: But Google playing politics in the network neutrality debate is clear to many

Nothing is simple when Google is involved, as the company's "Think Big With a Gig" experimental fiber-optic network announcement today once again makes evident.

Google Inc.'s plan to provide fiber-to-the-home connections at 1Gbit/sec. speeds -- that's 100 times what most American broadband users now get -- will have consumers salivating, but some experts say it's unlikely that Google will ever become a network carrier that regularly installs and maintains fiber connections.

Instead, the announcement appears to be Google's way of prodding federal regulators and broadband service providers like AT&T, Verizon and cable companies to do more to expand their broadband push.

The goal Google ultimately has in mind, some believe, is to make sure that networks with fat pipes are available soon, so consumers and businesses can use more bandwidth-intensive Google applications.

Mike Jude, an analyst at Stratecast, a division of research firm Frost & Sullivan, said Google's announcement seems "more like a ploy" directed at pushing for network neutrality in data networks, so those networks will be regulated in ways that will enable Google, end users and other application companies to openly use the networks owned and operated by traditional carriers.

Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, today welcomed Google's broadband test announcement and said in a statement that the FCC's own National Broadband Plan "will build upon such private-sector initiative."

But Jude and others said there was reason to be suspicious about Google's announcement. "Google's ulterior motives are to use the broadband network, not necessarily build the network," Jude said in an interview. "Google's in the business of building big data centers, not networks. They have no experience building networks, honestly."

"It's a clever attempt, since Google is very interested in broadband," he added. If Google is serious about offering 1Gbit/sec. networks, the immediate impact would be to get cable providers to beef up data rates, he said.

Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner Inc., interpreted Google's announcement mainly as a means of furthering its long push for network neutrality.

"The whole Net neutrality battle scares Google," Redman said. "They could come out as big losers. This announcement puts Google in competition with carriers... and is a cannon shot over the U.S. telecom providers that screams, 'If I can't join you, I'm going to try and best you at your game.'"

Added Jack Gold, principal analyst at J.Gold Associates: "I don't think Google really wants to be a carrier and build out fiber everywhere." Noting that Google could piggyback on plentiful dark, or unused, fiber in the ground, he said, "I think Google is trying to pressure the cable companies to get better at providing high-speed networks, which many of them are not doing all that well."

Jude said that Google's announcement, while "fairly vague," could benefit the company in one very practical way, since it urged towns and other local governments to come forward if they are interested in being part of a Google fiber-optic network test. Presumably, the municipalities that agreed to participate would offer rights of way for digging trenches where fiber would be laid.

"Asking communities to step up and indicate their interest is actually good politics, since finding a community willing to do that is difficult," Jude said. "How many people want their back yards trenched up to put in fiber optics?"

The fiber test, even if it never results in Google's hiring a contractor to install a productive fiber network, could also help Google find out what communities and individuals are willing to pay to get 1Gbit/sec. connectivity to their homes.

"They are gauging user interest," Jude explained. Pointing out that the announcement discussed 1Gbit/sec. services, he said "those would be premium services for the well-heeled who are willing to pay for it."

At speeds of 1Gbit/sec., Google said, a user could download a movie in five minutes, and, indeed, a fiber-optic connection to every home "means that the sky is the limit for any rational application," Jude said.

With so much bandwidth capacity, fiber-optic cable is used in big corporate backbones to support cloud computing infrastructures and other demanding systems.

Google's fiber-optic network test is a clear reminder of the amount of influence the Internet search giant wields in the communications and technology market. "Google's backing the Android OS was similar to this fiber announcement," Jude said. "Taking Android first to T-Mobile [with the G1 smartphone] brought a huge amount of pressure on wireless carriers to open up their networks," he said.

Likewise, no one is underestimating the impact Google will have with a fiber-optic test project, even if doesn't eventually lead to Google becoming a true network carrier. The company's name is already synonymous with search, and it today owns a 64% share of the search market.

But with the recent unveilings of the Google-branded Nexus One smartphone, its Chrome OS operating system, the Chrome browser and its Wave social collaboration tools, the company has moved pretty far afield from its search origins.

Computerworld's Sharon Gaudin contributed to this report.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed @matthamblen or subscribe to . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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