Seattle and Google to collaborate on broadband rollout?

February 17, 2010

Google_seattle-793099Last week Google announced an ambitious plan to connect up to 500,000 households to its own fiber-to-the-home network that will deliver connections speeds up to 1 gigabit per second. By comparison, most Comcast and Verizon FIOS customers currently have 10-25 megabit connections. In the coming year or so, many of those traditional cable modem customers will see connection speeds increase upwards of 100 megabits but Google's speeds wou! ld still surpass some of the major ISPs tenfold.Part of Google's plans include working with cities and municipalities across the nation in order to partner up in this endeavor. One of the first, and largest, cities to jump on the Google-ISP bandwagon is Seattle. The day after Google's announcement, Mayor McGinn's office declared that Seattle would aggressively seek Google's cooperation to bring this fast network connection to the city's schools, libraries and homes. 

From a policy standpoint, this could be a win-win for consumers and taxpayers. If Google really is interested in taking on an arguably money-losing project in order to bring enhanced broadband to Seattle, then bring it on. 

But there are a couple of concerns. First, the arrangement must not imitate that of the myriad companies a! nd cities that entered into agreements for municipal Wi-Fi net! works. Numerous stories of failed or underperforming muni Wi-Fi networks clutter the issue backdrop (as we've already noted). Second, Google is a big backer of open access networks (e.g. Net Neutrality). So the concern is will the network that Google provides be subject to Net Neutrality provisions? 

Up until this point, Google has only been a content provider, but now wants to wade into the physical infrastructure provider territory. Google estimates that it wants to spend $1 billion on its effort, but seeing as how fiber-to-the-home is a very expensive proposition, I'm curious as to how many homes they can actually connect for $1 billion. Last year cable companies spent $14.4 billion in infrastructure expansion. Granted, the other ISPs are connecting millions of people as opposed to thousands, but Mayor McGinn must go into any arrangement with open eyes. Will Google pay for the cost of the network wholly? If not, who will pick up the rest? And should Seattle taxpayers have to fork over money for a really great network but which other national and local competitors are already working towards without public money?

As the FCC prepares to announce its long-awaited broadband roll-out plan (originally due today, February 17th but delayed until March 17th), snippets of the end goals have slipped out. Essentially, the Obama Administration and FCC want to ensure ubiquitous broadband connection for a completely networked society with speeds upwards of 100 Megabits. We as a nation are far from those laud! able goals and some creative collaboration with companies like Google c! ould be the best way to achieve networked infrastructure. But policymakers eager to come off looking like the good guys by bringing the big ISPs to their knees should know there is no free lunch.