Google Schools Me on Broadband Black Holes

logo_smGoogle’s (s goog) Mountain View, Calif., Wi-Fi network was supposed to mark the search giant’s evolution into an ISP when it was unveiled three years ago, delivering free Internet access to people as a way of getting more of them to see its ads. Instead it’s stayed confined to Mountain View. And when I spoke with Karl Garcia, the current head of the project, he was pretty ambivalent about both its impact and its future; there was no talk of expansion or any of the usual Google enthusiasm for taking this model and using it to change the world. The contract with the city isn’t up for another two years, but Garcia didn’t disclose when negotiations for furthering the project or shutting it down might begin.

However, even if Google defers its ISP dreams, its experience with the network offers three lessons for those currently setting broadband policy, especially those in the government crafting a National Broadband plan due next February and those who are currently doling out billions in stimulus dollars.

People continue to use more bandwidth over time. The Google network has seen its data consumed double, to 600 GB transferred each day in July 2009 from 300 GB in July 2007, while the number of users has increased by a mere 27 percent to 19,000. Some of this is likely a result of more time spent online, but it’s also a result of Wi-Fi on web-surfing phones, which makes casual access to a network easier than ever. As we craft our broadband policy, the need to future-proof our networks and invest in faster speeds and more capacity seems clear.

Even tech towns like Mountain View (and Austin, Texas) have pockets without access. Garcia mentioned that for a few people, even in a wired town like Mountain View, the Google Wi-Fi network was the only broadband available. I call the areas in which such people live — which may be too far out from the telco’s remote terminal or central office or be without fiber from the local cable company — black holes. As the government starts approving projects related to providing access to unserved areas, these black holes need attention and investment, too. Is wireless the appropriate solution?

When it comes to wireless broadband, it’s OK if it’s barely broadband. While some of us are still arguing for the need for accessible wired broadband, the Google network shows off the benefits of providing accessible unwired broadband (even if it’s barely broadband). The Google Wi-Fi network delivers symmetrical 1 Mbps speeds (although users have tested higher speeds of 3 Mbps when logging on closer to a node), not much faster than the 768 kbps that meets the federal definition of broadband. Even though Garcia doesn’t see Wi-Fi networks supplanting wired connections or even WiMAX, an inexpensive or free wireless broadband is an important third element to help deliver ubiquitous web access.

One additional, notable tidbit from Garcia was that of the 19,000 unique daily visitors on the network, some 4,000 of them were using an iPhone — and that’s down from when school was still in session. OK, broadband junkies — class dismissed.