SAN FRANCISCO – In an ambitious bid to revolutionize how consumers use the Internet, technology giant Google Inc. said it will build a network that would be 100 times faster than what is available for many users today.
Entering territory tightly controlled by telecommunications carriers, Google announced Wednesday that it will build and test an experimental high-speed fiber-optic network that could be available in several communities and reach as many as 500,000 people. The service could be available as early as next year, an analyst said.
Consumers in those communities will be able to sign up for the service, which would offer connection speeds of 1 gigabit per second, the company said. Many high-speed home Internet connections operate at less than 10 megabits per second.
The possibility of becoming Google’s test case immediately set off a flurry of interest among consumers and businesses frustrated with the high cost and low speed of Internet access. West Sacramento, Calif., Portland, Ore., and Houston, among other cities, have already set up “Bring Google Fiber” groups on Facebook.
“We would absolutely be interested in participating,” said Kevin Tonoian, city technology services manager for Santa Clarita, Calif.
Google, which considers broadband access a linchpin to extending its Internet empire, has been pushing for the U.S. to catch up with Asia and Europe in the availability and speed of broadband Internet, calling broadband the “dial tone of the 21st century.”
Google has argued that building a national broadband infrastructure is today’s equivalent to building the nation’s highway system and would create jobs and stimulate economic development.
Faster and more widely available Internet access would also help Google get its products in front of more consumers and encourage new Internet uses such as viewing high-definition video or medical records.
“Google is trying to create a broadband utopia,” Forrester Research analyst Doug Williams said. “It wants to show regulators, government officials and other service providers what’s possible if you follow this model.”
Analysts say Google is using its political clout and deep pockets to show regulators and lawmakers the promise of speed and access in an industry historically in the tight grip of telecommunications carriers.
Google, which operates the world’s most popular search engine, has grown into a technology powerhouse with tentacles spreading into a wide variety of devices and services, but has no plans to invest tens of billions into rolling out a nationwide network, the company said. Instead Google is hoping that its experimental network would prod cable and phone companies to offer cheaper, speedier access on a broader scale, said Mike Jude, an analyst at research firm Frost & Sullivan.
Google would not say how much it would spend on the project, but Broadpoint AmTech analyst Ben Schachter estimated it could cost anywhere from $60 million to $1.6 billion, which would put only a slight dent in Google’s cash reserves of about $25 billion. Google plans to pay for the network without government subsidies.
“We are putting our money where our mouth is,” Google product manager Minnie Ingersoll said.
Google has urged the Federal Communications Commission to encourage such experiments. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski applauded Google. “Big broadband creates big opportunities,” he said in a statement.
Industry watchers said they hoped Google’s entry into the marketplace would spur competition and innovation but tempered their enthusiasm. In most places across the country, consumers have one or two options for high-speed Internet, usually from their cable or telephone provider. Service providers have been pouring tens of billions of dollars into upgrading their networks, but the speeds they are aiming for are not nearly as fast as what Google is proposing. Until now there has been little competitive pressure to force providers to take more aggressive action.