U.S. cities went Google-crazy last week when the online giant announced that it would enter the Internet Service Provider (ISP) business and deploy its own "experimental" fiber-optic ultra-high-speed broadband networks in a few trial locations. For what Google describes as "competitive pricing," between 50,000 and 500,000 U.S. homes will have access to one-gigabit-per-second Internet service, which is 100 times faster than most services currently available.
In a handful of interviews, Google executives have expanded on the proposal and made it clear that they are looking for cities that will be good partners in the project. But what does that mean?
"I don't even think Google knows the answers to a lot of these questions yet," says Kerry Hayes, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton's research and innovation specialist. "This is in no way a repeat of Memphis Networx."
Networx, the city's failed adventure in the fiber infrastructure and ISP business, cost Memphis taxpayers $30 million, and Hayes doesn't want to let that disaster color enthusiasm for Google's proposal. "There's no cost to apply for this," he says.
Google product manager Minnie Ingersoll told Gigaom.com that her company "wasn't looking for government funding or subsidies."
"It is a community partnership," she said. "We need to find a place where we can get users to use this service."
In a recent article, The Wall Street Journal questioned the value of one-gigabit service since users would still be hobbled by slower networks elsewhere. The vagueness of Google's proposal coupled with these kinds of realities have led some to believe that the search giant's move may have more to do with altering the behavior of providers like Comcast and AT&T and impacting future FCC policy.
The Silicon Valley Insider has speculated that Google is trying to scare the big telecoms into upgrading their networks by "making it sound like it wants a piece of the ISP market." The benefit for Google, obviously, is more bandwidth. That means more Google services delivered faster to more people.
In the past, Google has advocated that the government should spur competition by setting up high-speed test beds. Ingersoll told Gigaom.com that her company's recent announcement was a natural extension of that advocacy.
"How about we step up and put our money where our mouth is?" she said. "Getting faster and cheaper Internet access is really core to the mission of the team."
Hayes seems less concerned with Google's motivation and long-term goals. Instead, he sees an opportunity for Memphis to go from being a poster child for the digital divide to a place on the cutting edge of innovation and development. The city is launching a website, (http://memphisgoogle.net/site/), which looks at what Memphis and Google could do together from a number of angles.
"I want people to think about real connectivity, citywide," Hayes says. "I want people to think about what that would really mean."