Google Fiber Issues Public Challenge: Get Up To Speed!

Google's Kansas City broadband project is designed to shame the top US cable and telecom giants. Why is the U.S. ranked 28th in broadband speed?

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TIME Photo-Illustration; Sign: Getty Images

Google is set to install super-high-speed Internet broadband service in 180 Kansas City neighborhoods.

Six years ago this month, Google moved into one of the largest buildings in New York City. Google had only been public for two years and its stock price was soaring. By 2006, speculation was running rampant about Google’s ultimate goals. In addition to building the world’s largest Internet search engine, Google was furiously buying up so-called “dark fiber,” the unused long-haul underground cable left dormant by the dot-com crash.

When Google moved into 111 Eighth Avenue, the former Port Authority building, New York took notice because that giant facility is one of the most important “telecom carrier hotels” on the East Coast. A “telecom carrier hotel” or colocation center, is a major physical network node that allows tech and telecom firms to share space in proximity to improve network service and speed. There are just a few dozen in the U.S. (Here’s one in Los Angeles.) As it happens, 111 Eighth Ave. sits directly on top of the point where the critical Hudson Street/Ninth Avenue fiber highway turns right, before heading north-east toward the Upper West Side. In New York City, fiber-optic cables are bundled together in large clusters that snake underneath the sidewalk.

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So why was Google buying up all that “dark fiber” and situating itself on top of key points in the nation’s telecommunications grid? Did the still-young technology juggernaut have designs on becoming an actual internet service provider? (Ultimately, Google bought 111 Eighth Ave. for $2 billion.)

On Thursday, six years later, we got our answer. And it’s still no. Google’s goal, by building the fastest city-wide broadband network in the country, is not to compete with the giant national cable and telecom firms. Rather, it’s to shame these legacy giants, including Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, AT&T, and others into improving U.S. Internet performance. Why is that important to Google? Because the more people who use broadband Internet, at faster speeds, the more Google searches get executed, and the more money Google makes. So think of Google Fiber as a kind of proof-of-concept public-shaming that Google is performing in the heartland of America, demonstrating to the country — and the world — that better Internet performance is possible.

(MORE: Will Google’s Insanely-Fast Kansas City Network Shame U.S. ISPs?)

After eight months of scoping out Kansas City, Missouri (including the smaller Kansas City, Kansas; henceforth referred to as Kansas City), Google announced the list of 180 neighborhoods — or “fiberhoods,” in the company’s geek vernacular — that have been approved for the experimental service. (See the construction schedule here.) According to Google, “residents in 89% of Kansas City, Kan. and central Kansas City, Mo.” are eligible to receive brand-new broadband Internet service online speeds of 1 gigabit per second — roughly 100 times faster than the average U.S. connection.

As you might imagine, there was massive demand for Google’s new service. The first neighborhood to be hooked-up will be Hanover Heights in Kansas City, Kan. As Google Fiber project lead Kevin Lo explained on the tech giant’s blog Thursday, “Hanover Heights was the very first fiberhood to qualify (within two hours of our July announcement), and they kept up the momentum over the six-week rally, pre-registering the highest percentage of households in Kansas City, Kan.”

The Mountain View, Calif-based tech giant is offering three tiers of service. Google’s baseline KC fiber install fee is $300, or $25 per month for 12 months. After paying that amount, Kansas City residents can expect a guaranteed seven years of free broadband Internet service at current national “average” speeds (5Mbps download, 1Mbps upload speed; no data caps), a company spokeswoman told me Thursday. You pay $300, and Google is guaranteeing you broadband Internet for at least seven years — for free.

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For the upper two tiers, the $300 install fee is waived, and the pricing is simple. For the second tier, it’s $70 per month for the super-fast Internet service (one gigabit upload & download; no data caps), and for the top tier, the cost is $120 per month. The latter includes Google’s TV service — the company has struck deals with popular channels like Disney’s ESPN — as well as a bevy of new Google hardware products, including a Nexus 7 tablet, which serves as the remote. (No worries, Time Warner Cable is not stressed — yet.) Time Warner Cable spokesperson Justin Venech told Bloomberg that the company is bucking up for this fight. “We have a robust and adaptable network,” Venech told Bloomberg in an e-mail. “We are confident in our ability to compete.”

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“One gigabit connectivity will have an immediate impact on our users—the web will be faster, TV will be clearer, and uploading and downloading will be super speedy,” Google’s Lo wrote in the blog post. “Not only that, but we fully expect that gigabit speeds will lead to a wave of online innovation, led by Kansas City.”

After the company’s blog posting was published Thursday, I spoke to Google’s Jenna Wandres, who’s an associate on the Google Fiber communications team. She told me that Google is working with the University of Kansas Medical Center, and local public schools to wire up the community. One of the tests that Google, working with local partners, will conduct, is high-definition “telemedicine” trials, where medical professionals try to simulate the in-person doctor-patient interaction remotely. Another test involves piping HD advanced placement (AP) classes from schools in the community where they are taught, to those where they aren’t, she said. Wandres said that Google does not know how many potential broadband subscribers it might reach, if its program is successful.

As Google’s sign-up period for its Kansas City fiber service neared conclusion over the last few weeks, leading up to Thursday’s launch, the issue of the digital divide came into sharp relief. The first and most enthusiastic buyers for the program came from the more affluent neighborhoods in Kansas City, where residents can better afford the $300 install fee, and the higher tiers. In an interesting and impressively transparent socio-economic demonstration, Google actually charted each neighborhood as it passed the percentage threshold for high-speed broadband service confirmation. As you might expect, the city initially was divided by a central thoroughfare — the proverbial “railroad” tracks — Troost Avenue, the city’s “historical socioeconomic and racial dividing line,” according to Wired.com.

On one side, buy-in was high, and the other side, it lagged. Needless to say, knowing the company’s history, culture, and founders, the idea that Google would be an unwitting contributor to the digital divide was not something it could accept.

So what did Google do? It deployed a “field team” of 60 employees to canvas the ground in under-served areas, working churches, community centers, and schools, to spread the word about its new service. Their sole job was to get out into the community. What the team found was shocking. A full one-quarter (25%) of the respondents surveyed by the Google team in these areas said they did not have broadband access to the Internet, according to Google spokeswoman Wandres. And they don’t have dial-up either. It turns out that there a substantial portion of the Kansas City community that doesn’t have Internet access at all.

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“Many of these people said, ‘I don’t have Internet because it’s not relevant to my life,” Wandres told me. Google hoofed-it out there into the Kansas City neighborhoods — not just to spread the gospel of its own super-fast experimental service,  but to argue the benefits of the Internet itself. “We’re committed to addressing the digital literacy and relevance problem head on,” Wandres said. “We’ll have micro-grants available for community organizations who want to start up digital literacy programs in Kansas City.”

During an election year, it’s not surprising that even a relatively innocuous topic like providing faster, cheaper Internet access to a major American city becomes politicized. Last week, per Ars, Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai released a statement praising the Google Fiber project as a “model for other metropolitan areas to follow.” Helpfully, Ars writer Timothy B. Lee pointed out that Kansas City’s support for Google’s network went “well beyond deregulation to outright corporate welfare.” As professional politicians bicker and grandstand about “who built what,” private companies and municipalities are getting on with it. Companies like Google and municipalities like Kansas City show us that the real “nation-building” starts at the local level.

What is Google Fiber about? It’s about serving notice to the existing U.S. broadband community, and vividly illustrating how badly we’ve fallen behind in Internet broadband speed competitiveness. Last time I checked, the U.S. was ranked 28th among developed countries in broadband speeds. That’s embarrassing. What the U.S. needs now is for private companies to work with public entities to build our information infrastructure, as Google and Kansas City have done. Remember, this is not about Google going national with a big broadband effort to compete with the likes of Comcast and Time Warner Cable — yet. Rather, it’s a reminder that building out our nation’s next-generation information grid is good for people, businesses, and society.

Wandres declined to comment on when and where Google will next choose to install super-fast broadband Internet access. In the meantime, here’s the Google Fiber video: