Internet search and advertising giant Google said last week it plans to build and test ultra-high-speed broadband networks in select communities capable of delivering 1Gb/s service via fiber-to-the-home connections.
The move, announced in a blog posting by two Google product managers Feb. 10, is being branded as an “experiment” aimed at making Internet access faster for everyone. Google plans to offer the new service to a minimum of 50,000 people and up to as many as 500,000 people during the trial. Local communities interested in being a part of the test have until March 26 to respond, the company said. The communities the service will be available in will be announced later in the year.
The company was careful not to promise a commercial ultra-broadband rollout nationwide. Rather, the project is intended to encourage developers to create “bandwidth-intensive ‘killer apps’ and services,” test new approaches to building out fiber networks and share lessons learned “with the world,” and offer an open-access network managed in “an open, non-discriminatory and transparent way,” the blog said.
Still, even announcing a trial may be reason enough for concern among telecoms and cable operators. If successful, Google could move forward in setting up a larger network to compete with existing players on price and performance, said Michael Greeson, founder and director of research for The Diffusion Group, a market analysis firm specializing in the digital media space.
Even if it doesn’t, the mere possibility may give telecoms and cable companies thinking of imposing monthly consumer bandwidth usage caps a reason to reconsider. While consumers have taken a dim view of usage limits, and providers — at least for now — have backed down, concern over Google becoming a competitor with a 1Gb/s service may lead operators to abandon plans for usage caps in the future, Greeson said.
For broadcasters, studios, sports leagues and content providers looking to tap into over-the-top (OTT) video content delivery, that’s good news because measures to throttle back monthly bandwidth use make watching content on computers and TV more expensive and less convenient. Imposing caps on monthly bandwidth use and charging a premium for overages “will kill OTT faster than anything,” Greeson said.
Conversely, if the Google test promotes greater bandwidth availability, OTT content delivery is only likely to gain even more popularity among consumers due to greater speed and convenience. Viewers already have shown significant interest in watching OTT content on their TVs via services like Netflix, VUDU and Amazon Video, and set makers have responded with several announcing the availability of TVs with direct broadband connectivity over the next year.
A recent forecast from IMS Research estimates 12.5 percent of all TVs shipped globally this year will have Internet connectivity. In 2011, more than 12 million connected TVs will be shipped in the United States, Canada and Latin America, and four years later, that number will grow to more than 26.1 million, according to the estimate.
These figures don’t even include households using third-party devices, such as a Blu-ray players or game consoles, to connect their TVs to the Internet. When those are added to the mix, IMS Research expects the number of global households with the ability to view Internet video on their TVs to exceed 473 million by the end of 2015 and, in the process, disrupt other emerging technologies.
“Connected TVs will begin to replace Blu-ray Disc players in five years (2015) as TV manufacturers also obtain the same content partners (i.e. Amazon Video, Netflix, Roxio CinemaNow, VUDU) and as consumers increasingly have the desire to keep the whole TV viewing experience simple and centralized,” said Rebecca Kurlak, IMS Research consumer research analyst.
Greater bandwidth, such as the 1Gb/s service envisioned by Google, is fully 100 times faster than what most Americans can access today and would make possible delivery of a full-length HD movie in less than five minutes. The same connection also makes OTT delivery of 3-D entertainment realistic.
Ultimately, however, the significance of the announcement may not be as much about technology as it is about business plans, competitive pressures and consumer offerings. After all, as of October 2009, the FTTH Council reported that 5.25 million homes in North America were already connected directly to fiber networks — more than 10 to 100 times the number Google said it plans to offer its trial 1Gb/s service.
Where things get interesting in terms of OTT content delivery and consumer services is the pressure the trial could exert on existing FTTH to open the digital spigot wider, Greeson said. Today, for example, Verizon — one of the nation’s largest FTTH service providers — offers its FiOS Internet residential customers plans with download speeds ranging from 15Mb/s to 50Mb/s, but the telco’s network is capable of delivering up to 2.5Gb/s to the home to support its voice, TV and Internet services. Verizon tests of an XG-PON passive optical-network system revealed far greater speeds are attainable in the range of 10Gb/s downloads and 2.4Gb/s uploads, he added.
It’s important to remember, Greeson said, that what Google announced was only a trial; however, if the company takes the next step by rolling out a regional or nationwide network, the whole game changes. “If Google decides to roll out a truly open broadband network with 1G capacity and tons of applications into larger regions of the country, … it will set the national tone, a new gold standard to which other operators must conform in order to sell their brand,” he said.