WASHINGTON — Google Inc. plans to build a handful of experimental, ultra-fast broadband networks around the country to connect consumers to the Internet and ensure that tomorrow's systems can keep up with online video and other advanced applications that the search company will want to deliver.
The Google project, announced Wednesday, is also intended to provide a platform for outside developers to create and try out all sorts of cutting-edge applications that will require far more bandwidth than today's networks offer.
The company said its testbed fiber-optic networks will deliver speeds of 1 gigabit per second to as many as 500,000 Americans. That would be roughly 50 to 300 times faster than the DSL, cable and fiber-optic networks that connect most U.S. homes to the Internet today, at speeds typically ranging from 3 megabits to 20 megabits per second.
Google envisions systems that will enable consumers to download a high-definition, full-length feature film in less than five minutes; allow rural health clinics to send 3-D medical images over the Internet; and let students collaborate with classmates around the world while watching live 3-D video of a university lecture.
"Our goal is to trial new technologies and figure out what kinds of applications you can send over these big pipes," said Richard Whitt, Google's Washington-based counsel for telecommunications and media. "There may be next-generation applications that are being held back right now."
It's unlikely that even Google could afford to bring such connections to big chunks of the country. And Whitt said Google isn't looking to compete head-to-head with the phone and cable TV companies that dominate the U.S. broadband business. Rather, he said, Google hopes its project will help create advanced broadband applications and network technology and identify ways to bring fiber-optic connections to more Americans at a lower cost.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski praised the project, saying that "big broadband creates big opportunities." Next month, the FCC is set to unveil its recommendations on how to bring affordable high-speed Internet access to all Americans.
In comments that Google filed with the FCC about the national broadband plan, Google suggested that the government create the type of testbed network that it now hopes to build itself.
Google's announcement Wednesday also came as welcome news to public interest groups that have warned that broadband connections in the U.S. are far slower and more expensive than those available in many countries in Europe and Asia. Ultra-fast networks now available in the U.S., such as the university-backed Internet2 project, aren't available to consumers, as Google's systems would be.
Sascha D. Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative, said the Google project underscores just how slow the major U.S. phone and cable companies have been in building advanced networks.
In a statement, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, a trade group, said the cable TV industry has invested $161 billion over the past 13 years to build a nationwide broadband infrastructure that is available to 92 percent of U.S. homes.
And Verizon Communications Inc. said the Google network will mark "another new paragraph in this exciting story" of broadband growth. Verizon has been building a super-fast fiber-optic network, called FiOS, that offers speeds of up to 50 megabits per second and has run a field test experimenting with speeds of up to 10 gigabits – 10 times faster than what Google is proposing.
Google will seek input from communities that might be interested in getting one of its test networks. The company said it is too soon to say how much the networks will cost to build, but stressed that it does not intend to apply for any of the $7.2 billion in funding for broadband included in last year's economic stimulus bill.
Google said it is prepared to sell access directly to consumers at prices that are competitive with existing broadband services, but would consider letting Internet service providers or local governments sell their own services over the Google network.