Google partners up for $60M undersea fiber link between Florida and Brazil

Project shows company's ongoing efforts to gain greater control over Internet access

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Google's foray into a $60 million undersea fiber optic cable construction project linking Florida to Brazil should help the search giant gain greater control of all aspects of Internet access while expanding its efforts to close the digital divide.

Google last week joined Brazilian company Algar Telecom and African operator Angola Cables in the undersea venture, which will cross 6,560 miles and link the Brazilian cities of Santos and Fortaleza with Boca Raton, Fla. Several reports described the agreement, which was first announced Oct. 10 in Portuguese by Brazilian financial newspaper Valor.

Google Latin American head Cristian Ramos was quoted as saying the fiber optic pipe will add needed Internet capacity. "As more people get access to the Internet, more capacity to the infrastructure that keeps the Internet running is needed, so that everyone can have a fast, safe and useful online experience," Ramos said.

Work on the Brazilian cable is supposed to start right away and be finished in late 2016. TE Connectivity SubCom won the construction contract for the project.

It's not the first time that Google has joined an undersea fiber optic cable partnership with traditional carriers. In 2008, it joined with Bharti Airtel, Pacnet, SingTel, Global Transit and KDDI in building a trans-Pacific undersea fiber optic cable between Japan and the U.S. That project, called Unity, was finished in 2010 and cost about $300 million, even though its 6,200 mile length was about the same length as the ongoing Brazil project.

When Unity was first announced in 2007, a New York Times writer said it showed "Google may be the ultimate do-it-yourself company," with engineering prowess that led to various purchases and inventions leading to the Android OS, as well as a variety of mobile device apps and services and many other search capabilities that serve to bolster Google's advertising-centered model.

What Google gets

With Unity and now the Brazil fiber cable project, Google will gain better control of its destiny and potential revenues through basic physical access to the Internet, according to fiber optic industry officials, including Hunter Newby, CEO of Allied Fiber, which is not involved in either project.

While Google is not fully a network operator like AT&T or Verizon, it has argued strenuously before the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in favor of net neutrality. It has also opposed provisions that would allow traditional Internet access providers to impose premium rates on Internet content providers who offer video like YouTube and other data-rich content.

"Network operators of all types [including Google] want one thing, and that's control -- control of costs, provisioning, quality, and repair," Newby said in an interview. "Any network operator that seeks control must do so by obtaining control at the physical layer of a network, at layer one, and then they are free to move through the higher layers to applications. That way, they don't have anybody standing in front of them telling them what they can and can't do.

"Those that have control can impose their will," Newby said.

Allied Fiber and other companies could indirectly benefit from the Brazil fiber connection. Allied Fiber is a small, private company with just 15 employees that sells unused -- or "dark" -- fiber and network co-location capability in Florida; it has focused on fiber in submarine networks in south Florida, Newby said.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said Google and its partners in the Brazilian project, surely see untapped financial potential. "South America and especially Brazil, Argentina and Peru are fast emerging markets with huge potential," Gold said. "With a direct channel down there, Google can dramatically increase its coverage and hence their revenues through ads."

Some reports have depicted the choice of Brazil as a move by Google to potentially bring more Internet connectivity to a country in need of greater access, especially for the poor.

Google's efforts in Kansas City

When Google first announced Google Fiber for Kansas City, Kans., and then Kansas City, Mo., in 2012, it talked about the need to reduce the digital divide in that region. Since then, there has been criticism from neighborhood groups over whether enough poor people in the Kansas City area have signed up to pay for Google Fiber with 1Gbps connections, or to obtain a much slower connection that is free, subject to a $300 installation fee.

While Google Fiber in Kansas City and other U.S. cities is obviously a different business than undersea cable development, both types of projects show a Google that wants network control, top to bottom.

"The Google Fiber experiment that turned into a real business in K.C. is in itself an example of why Google wants to take the lead on submarine cable," Newby said. "This is not new, but we are probably going to see more of non-traditional carriers and service providers entering into submarine projects. And I'd venture to guess there will be new submarine cable projects with no traditional carriers involved at all."

Google hasn't revealed precisely how well its Kansas City area Google Fiber buildout has done in connecting poor neighborhoods to the Internet. It has, however, announced completion of 7,000 miles of construction in that two-state area, a process that has helped kick-off a flurry of tech startup activity.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on door-to-door surveys it had done in the area showing that just 15% of residents in six low-income Kansas City, Mo., neighborhoods had some form of Google Fiber service, compared to 54% of residents in nearby middle- and higher income neighborhoods.

A recent blog post by Google's Erica Swanson, head of community impact programs, said the "long-term, complex problem" of addressing the digital divide requires working with local partners over time.

That same philosophy will certainly be at work in Brazil, even if the major lifting to address the digital divide is done by Google's carrier partners in South America.

The Google undersea cable project from Florida to Brazil will be the fifth submarine cable between the two countries.

A stumbling block over spying?

There was some question whether another cable connection to the U.S. would happen, following concerns in January by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff over U.S. National Security Agency spying on top officials, including Rouseff herself.

As a result, Rouseff had argued in favor of an undersea link to the European Union. Shortly afterwards, Brazilian state-owned telecom Telebras and IslaLink Submarine Cables of Spain said a $185 million fiber optic cable would be built to link Portugal with Forteleza, Brazil. That connection would bypass the U.S. entirely, adding a layer of security.

Google objected to the NSA spying on top government officials when it was first reported and urged reforms, but apparently hasn't seen the need to halt its interests in the Brazilian project.

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