Google Doesn't Want to Be an ISP — It Wants to Be a Rabble-rouser

Minnie Ingersoll

Google rocked my world today when it unveiled its experimental fiber network, complete with speeds of 1 gigabit per second to the home. Already the Google-as-ISP meme has pervaded the technology world, but I don’t think Google is in this to be a traditional ISP. Rather, it wants to build out a fiber-to-the-home network to show the U.S. the future of communications — a far more frightening prospect for existing ISPs, and one that has big implications for entrepreneurs and consumers.

I wrote late last year about the future of communications in an all-IP world and noted that even the Federal Communications Commission is preparing for that day. Google clearly is as well, as we can see from products like Google Voice and its cloud efforts. To figure out why Google has declared war on the existing communications network with this plan, I chatted with Minnie Ingersoll, a product manager for alternative access at Google. Her group works on such issues as white spaces broadband, spectrum auctions and Google’s filings with the FCC related to the National Broadband plan.

GigaOM: Why this? Why now?

Minnie Ingersoll: Some of this is because it’s a natural follow-on to the work we’ve done in response to the National Broadband Plan. Some of that advocacy includes saying the government should set up testbeds to set up super-fast connections, so we said, “How about we step up and put our money where our mouth is and offer one of these high-speed test beds ourselves?” Getting faster and cheaper Internet access is really core to the mission of the team that I work on.

GigaOM: You’re calling for community involvement. Does that mean the government needs to offer tax breaks, stimulus funds or access?

Ingersoll: We’re not looking for government funding or subsidies here. It is a community partnership, if you will. One of the things we learned from municipal Wi-Fi is we need to have an engaged, excited community. We need to find a place where we can get users to use this service, what infrastructure is available and how the local contracting process works.

GigaOM: Google has a reputation for building its own gear inside its data centers. Free, the French ISP, has managed to lower its operational costs and the cost to subscribers by building some of its own telecommunications gear. Will you guys do that with your fiber network?

Ingersoll: When you mentioned Free, I thought you were going to ask about its openness, so I could talk about our thoughts on openness which we are replicating from the Europeans. But it’s a little too early to know exactly what were going to do in terms of the hardware, and we have not fleshed out all the partnerships yet.

GigaOM: By getting into the ISP business Google will expose itself to new regulations. What are the expectations there for you?

Ingersoll: We expect to be regulated in the same way as anyone else is regulated. We don’t plan a video or voice offering. Our fiber to the home is strictly an IP data pipe. We will be governed by the regulations that apply there and are not seeking special treatment.

GigaOM: What is the timing on the network?

Ingersoll: We’ll be seeking to identify a community this year. Beyond that the timing will depend a lot on what communities we partner with.

GigaOM: Google said it would offer a competitive price. How will that be determined?

Ingersoll: It’s too early to make commitments to the price, but part of the goal is to have services that users are actually using, so we are pricing it to encourage people to use it.

GigaOM: That’s a phenomenally fast connection. What will people use it for?

Ingersoll: Think back to when we all had dial-up and no idea what would be possible once we moved into this broadband world. This is like that, and that’s where the open nature of the network is important. We have a lot of Google engineers who are excited and experimenting with apps and services on the network but the openness part is just for developers to offer products and services on top of the network. We’re looking for  innovation on the deployment such as new deployment techniques and technologies.

GigaOM: So if I have a new edge router or an optical network termination design, I should call you?

Ingersoll: Yes! We think that faster, improved Internet access is possible and we hope to take the learning from this test bed to the world.

GigaOM: It has to be asked: Is Google going to become an ISP?

Ingersoll: We are not planning to roll out a nationwide ISP network. This is a test bed for innovation.

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