Google moves fast on broadband revolution

While Britain makes vague noises about having a ‘world-class’ broadband network, Google is delivering genuinely superfast speed at knock-down prices in the US

Larry Page of Google

Google’s Larry Page: forging into superfast broadband. Photograph: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

document has come into my possession. It appears to emanate from the government of Ruritania or some other insignificant country. The cover is illustrated by a low-resolution smartphone photograph of an out-of-focus bedspread, but this homely imagery is offset by the brave rhetoric inside.

“We should have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015,” it declares. “That’s a challenging goal but it’s one that we can and must achieve. It’s vital for the growth of the economy – especially to small businesses that are so often the engines of innovation.”

Quite so. The government of Ruritania is “committed to ensuring the rapid rollout of superfast broadband across the country. Rural and remote areas of the country should benefit from this infrastructure upgrade at the same time as more populated areas, ensuring that an acceptable level of broadband is delivered to those parts of the country that are currently excluded.” It is also believed something called “two-way video conferencing” may encourage Ruritarians to work from home.

There is much more in this vein, together with talk of “a world-class communications network” that will help the economy grow. Consumers will have “even greater choice” and costs will be reduced. The delivery of public services will be more efficient and cost-effective. And of course “the way we access entertainment will alter, with greater options for consumers”.

Note the use of “superfast” and “world class”, which are usually reliable indicators of either cant or cluelessness. Working on the assumption that the governors of Ruritania (who sign themselves J Hunt and E Vaizey, by the way) are honest but simple folks, we delve deeper into their vapourings in search of a definition of “superfast”. On this, they are strangely evasive, but essentially they appear to mean broadband speeds ranging from 2Mbps (megabits per second) – which is marginally better than smoke signals but will be available to even the humblest yokel in the land – to as much as perhaps 100Mbps in favoured urban locations, in which frappuccinos and other delicacies are available. If such heights can be attained by 2015, the aforementioned governors assure their readers that Ruritania will lead Europe.

All of which makes this columnist wonder what these guys have been smoking. Or perhaps it is just a reflection of the fact that Ruritania is a remote and backward country that has poor communications with the outside world. If the latter, then perhaps it would be helpful to tell Messrs Hunt and Vaizey something about what life is like far from their distant fastnesses. In Kansas and Missouri, for example.

Both of these US states have cities called Kansas City and in both of them Google is signing up customers for what any informed person would call real broadband, namely a connection running at 1,000Mbps. It uses fibre-optic cables to give gigabit (1,000Mbps) connection speeds to subscribers. For $70 a month on a 12-month contract, Google promises them up to 1,000Mbps upload and download speeds, plus a terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) of free online storage. Alternatively, for a one-off $300 connection fee, Google offers them 5Mbps download and 1Mbps upload free for seven years.

A promotional video for Google Fiber.Since Google is not a registered charity, you may ask why it’s doing this. The first reason is simply that it can, because ever since the collapse of the first internet boom, Google has been acquiring, at knockdown prices, the bandwidth capacity (the “dark fibre”) installed by the telephone companies at the height of the bubble. (This also explains why the company can absorb the colossal bandwidth requirements of YouTube without missing a beat.)

The second reason for the Kansas City projects is that, under its new chief executive, Larry Page, Google appears to have acquired a new appetite for radical strategic moves. Page knows that once consumers have access to real – as opposed to Ruritanian – broadband then their behaviour changes radically. Not only do they spend more time online (which obviously benefits Google), but they also use the net for nearly everything, which also benefits Google and is why phone companies, cable TV firms, broadcasters, publishers and their captive regulators fear the internet. If Google Fiber (as they call it in the US) catches on, then a swath of powerful industries is in for a very rocky ride.

And – who knows? – one day news of these developments may reach the rulers of Ruritania. Provided that they manage to get their “superfast” connections up and running.