Why Google Wants a Faster Internet

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There was no lack of, well, buzz about Google's new Buzz social-media platform last week, but more important were a series of moves that suggest the search giant is ready to take a tentative step toward fixing one of its longest-held gripes: the speed of Internet connections in the U.S.

In a blog post on Feb. 10, Google product managers Minnie Ingersoll and James Kelly laid out the company's plan to provide as many as 500,000 people in a small number of locales with fiber-optic Internet connections capable of one gigabit per second (Gbps), more than 100 times faster than the typical U.S. broadband connection speed today. It would be a blazing-fast upgrade, capable of downloading a full-length HD movie in under 90 seconds. To be considered for the trial, cities have until March 26 to submit information about their existing networks, with Google planning to choose its test site later this year. Such a plan isn't cheap: depending on how many people Google chooses to link up, analysts say costs could run north of $1 billion to install and maintain the new network.

It was the biggest announcement in a weeklong speed blitz for Google. In a Feb. 9 Op-Ed in the Washington Post, Google chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt called for faster Internet connections as a way of narrowing America's "innovation deficit." And on Feb. 11, Google launched a Speed Dashboard as part of YouTube, designed to let users compare the performance of their Internet connections to those of other providers in their neighborhood and around the world. Think your neighbors have faster Internet than you? Now you can confirm your suspicions and weigh up whether it's worth it to switch providers.

Internet speed isn't a new concern for Google — the company says they've begun taking loading times into account as part of search rankings, and speed was a selling point behind the development of its increasingly popular Google Chrome Web browser. But these are all innovations on the software end; this latest plan goes after the networks themselves. The U.S. is ranked 12th in the world in broadband speed and 15th in the world for broadband penetration. Not bad numbers, but U.S. providers are only now working on the next generation of broadband access, limited to 100 Mbps. By contrast, South Korea plans to give access to 1-Gbps connections countrywide by 2012 as part of a $24.6 billion plan to upgrade the country's infrastructure. The Federal Communications Commission will submit its own U.S. broadband plan in March, and Google is encouraging the government to be ambitious in its recommendations to telecommunications companies.

But don't expect some Googlefied version of the Rural Electrification Administration: the company's not about to fan out all over the country, delivering high-speed connections to the woefully underequipped masses. Such a project would be massively expensive — Verizon has spent $23 billion in infrastructure for its 100-Mbps FiOS network, which reaches only 18 million people around the U.S. Rolling out nationwide high-speed connections would likely break the bank, even at Google. But if successful, Google's pilot could be a spark to help push U.S. telecommunications companies toward more rapid development.

So what's in it for Google? Faster Internet connections could increase consumer appetite for Google offerings like YouTube, particularly as the company has made a cautious foray into the movie-rental business. Services like Google Voice stand to benefit as well, as better speeds could let Google expand the product into a full-fledged VoIP telephone service. But ultimately this might be best read as a bid toward the future. "We want to see what developers and users can do with ultra-high speeds, whether it's creating new bandwidth-intensive 'killer apps' and services, or other uses we can't yet imagine," Google's announcement read. Whatever those unknown uses are, Google is as well situated as anyone to grab a piece of the action.