There was a time, not so long ago, when Google was the internet activist’s best friend. Through much of its first decade of existence, the search engine company presented itself as a different kind of company, one that cared about changing the world for the better first and making money second, an ethos exemplified through its famous “don’t be evil” motto.
It wasn’t just empty words; Google talked the talk too. The search company was one of the most vocal supporters of net neutrality and openness in wireless, going so far as to bid billions of dollars to ensure that people could use whatever devices and apps they wanted on whatever networks they wanted.
But in recent years, something changed. The company compromised in the fight for net neutrality by partnering with wireless carrier Verizon to draft a watered-down proposal that eventually formed the basis of the rules implemented by regulators. While the move was seen as prudent by some, others thought it was a betrayal; that Google’s desire to get wireless carriers to support its Android phones led it to become a “surrender monkey,” a charge that irked some of the company’s principals.
Since then, Google has been shoveling increasing amounts of money into government lobbying, but has been notably quieter in the public domain on such issues. It did speak up on the Stop Online Piracy Act earlier this year, but for the most part Google has been focusing its public muscle on un-controversial projects like augmented reality glasses and robot cars.
Simmering in the background for the past two years, however, has been a plan to build a super-fast broadband network that would really put Google’s money where its mouth is. The idea, when it was unveiled in 2010, was to create a fiber network capable of gigabit speeds, or at least 100 times faster than what’s on offer anywhere in North America, at a reasonable cost with unlimited usage. The company kicked off a sweepstakes between U.S. cities and towns by promising to bring this cutting-edge broadband to them.
Earlier this year, Google announced that Kansas City, Kansas, would be the first city to get this super broadband. On Thursday, the company sent shockwaves through the broadband world by announcing service details and pricing for what it is calling Google Fiber.
For $120 and a two-year contract, Kansas residents can get one gigabit upload and download speed, no data caps, a full lineup of TV channels, a Nexus 7 tablet, one terabyte of online Google Drive storage and all the necessary hardware to make the service work. For $70, customers can get just the internet service and online storage. As a fun kicker, Google is also offering slower internet service, with a 5 megabit per second download speed and one megabit upload for free, if the subscriber pays the $300 construction fee. The service is guaranteed to be free for at least seven years.
At first glance, $70 looks rather steep for broadband service, but in actuality that’s a great price for what is being offered. Not only are the speeds mind-bending – a gigabit of juice for uploading really gets the imagination reeling with possibilities – the unlimited usage is also enticing at a time when regular internet providers are shrinking or instituting caps. Combined with a $50 TV service, Google’s broadband offering looks better than anything being sold in North America. The free 5 Mbps service must also have cable and phone companies worried, since many of their own customers are paying dearly for these relatively archaic and outdated speeds.
And that’s the whole reason for all of this. While Google says its Fiber venture will be profitable, it’s not likely to start rolling out nation-wide. As the company itself has said, the network is an experiment designed to show what’s possible, not just with super speeds, but also with the economics. If Google can build such a network at a relatively low cost and still make money on it, that surely makes all the complaining by cable and phone companies about having to spend billions and congestion and data caps and so on look silly.
Google Fiber is a warning shot fired across the bow of those traditional ISPs. It’s a message that if they don’t get their act together, somebody is willing and able to come in and eat their lunch – and look like a hero for doing it. These companies learn slowly, so it’ll probably take Google rolling into a few more towns before it sinks in, but ultimately the die has been cast. Change is imminent in U.S. broadband. Canadians, meanwhile, can only hope some of this sentiment filters north, or better yet, that Google tries to export its activist experiment.
The move is similar to the company’s wireless spectrum auction gambit in 2008. In order to kick off those open-access rules mentioned above, bidding needed to top $4 billion, which Google amply took care of. Once the rules were assured, the company dropped out of the bidding with its mission accomplished. Some accused the company of gaming the system, but really, so what? It was a pretty big gamble that did result in positive change for consumers.
Building super-fast broadband in Kansas is another gamble that will result in positive change, at the very least for residents there. With Fiber, Google has come roaring back to activism, both publicly and economically, and internet activists are cheering.