Google Broadband isn’t practical at a national scale
Google is planning to deploy an experimental high speed broadband testbed with 50,000 to 500,000 people and the blogosphere is already going into hype overdrive. The true goal of the project is not to build a new national broadband network but to “rabble-rouse” the existing broadband providers by demonstrate how things ought to be done in the mind of Google. For example; Google’s demonstration broadband network is going to offer gigabit speeds at “competitive prices”, only provide generic IP service and not Telephony or Television service, and offer open access wholesale to other ISPs. In other words, Google Broadband will be Google’s Utopian vision of how all broadband providers should be and what they’ve been advocating in DC all these years.
Of course the reality is that no broadband provider can all of these things or even most of them. Even the best examples of open access wholesale in Europe don’t demand mandate open access on the pure fiber networks because no network operator is going to spend billions of dollars on a Fiber to the Home (FTTH) network that they have to open up to their competitors at regulated wholesale prices. Furthermore, even the municipal fiber networks have to rely on good TV and business class service uptake to break even or face financial disaster. Dr. Timothy Nulty who heads one of the most successful municipal fiber networks in Burlington Vermont stated that the open access wholesale model was “a recipe for financial failure“.
The other big difference in Google Broadband is that they are going to cherry pick communities that will be cheap to deploy which is not something you could ever replicate on a national level where deployment levels have to be above 90%. Google is most likely going to deploy at the cheapest locations where fiber runs are short and where aerial cabling will be permitted. Underground fiber cabling can cost nearly 7 times more according to this study performed in San Francisco. The CTO of Qwest has stated that they won’t deploy fiber to the home because 75% to 80% of their cable plant is underground whereas Verizon is the opposite, and that makes a huge difference in the cost of fiber deployment. So Google Broadband might scale wonderfully when they can cherry pick 20 to 200 thousand homes (assuming 2.5 people per home), but it’s a whole different ball game when we’re trying to reach 100 million homes.
Then there’s the matter of actual speed versus advertised speed. Can Google actually deliver anything close to gigabit speeds to all of their users during peak usage times? It’s highly unlikely but that hasn’t stopped journalists from declaring Verizon FiOS (an actual production service you could buy and not just some vaporware service) as “also-rans“. But what most people don’t understand is that Verizon FiOS is already a 2.4 Gigabit GPON infrastructure that is already testing 10 gigabit GX-PON technology. But for now, Verizon is offering speeds that they can actually deliver or exceed so that when a customer buys 20 Mbps service, they actually get 20 Mbps of actual data throughput. If Verizon wanted to be more like Japanese broadband providers which typical deliver less than 1/3 of the OECD advertised speed data, they could easily claim to offer “100 Mbps” or “1000 Mbps” broadband service so long as they didn’t care to maintain their current level of customer satisfaction.
These are very complex issues that few understand so the typical reaction if Google Broadband ever takes off is “why can’t my ISP be just like Google”, and that’s probably what Google is counting on. But a truly useful discussion on Broadband should be based more on fact and less on hype.