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Google to build ultra-fast web networks

The U.S. ranks 28th in broadband internet access, according to a report released last summer.
The U.S. ranks 28th in broadband internet access, according to a report released last summer.

Google Inc. plans to build a handful of experimental, ultra-fast internet networks around the country to ensure that tomorrow’s systems can keep up with online video and other advanced applications that the company will want to deliver. The internet search giant’s plans could help rural schools and colleges hoping to expand broadband web access to students and faculty.

The Google project, announced Feb. 10, 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 fiber-optic broadband networks will deliver speeds of 1 gigabit per second to as many as 500,000 Americans.

The systems will be many times faster than the existing DSL, cable, and fiber-optic networks that connect most U.S. consumers to the internet today at speeds typically ranging from 3 megabits to 20 megabits per second.

Google envisions systems that will let consumers 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 web, 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.”

A recent report titled “3-D TV: Where Are We Now and Where Are Consumers” explores how 3-D video might be used in K-12 schools and college campuses some day. 3-D projectors are available already, and technology experts say they soon could be commonplace in classrooms. (See “eSN Special Report: Learning in 3-D.”)

“As educators, we all too often are required out of necessity to make students take three-dimensional concepts and try to learn them in a two-dimensional perspective,” said Stan Silverman, professor at the New York Institute of Technology’s School of Education. “This disconnect creates a gap in learning between those who naturally can map back to three dimensions and those who can’t.”

Whitt said Google isn’t looking to compete head-to-head with the phone and cable companies that dominate the U.S. broadband business.

Rather, he said, Google hopes its project will help advance new broadband applications and network technology and help identify ways to bring fiber-optic connections to more Americans at a lower cost.

The announcement 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 industrialized countries in Europe and Asia.

Although there are other ultra-fast networks in the United States—such as Internet2, which is run by a consortium of universities, corporations, government agencies, and laboratories—those are not available to general consumers.

Google will seek input from communities that might be interested in getting one of its testbed networks. The company said it was too soon to say how much the networks would cost to build.

The company said it is prepared to sell access to consumers directly at prices that are competitive with existing broadband services, but it would entertain partnering with an internet service provider or local government.

The demand for more broadband web networks was evident in August, when the federal government announced it had received requests for nearly $28 billion from groups that want to expand high-speed internet service in the United States. (See “Huge demand far exceeds broadband grants.”)

The total requests outstripped available broadband stimulus funds seven to one.

States, counties, Indian tribes, nonprofits, phone companies, libraries, colleges, universities, and others—2,200 requests in all—lined up in advance of the Aug. 20 deadline for the first round of broadband grants. The government has $4 billion in loans and grants initially available.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) last summer suggested the United States ranks 28th in the world in average internet connection speeds and is not making significant progress in building a faster network.

The CWA report said the average download speed in South Korea is 20.4 megabits per second (Mbps)—four times faster than the U.S. average of 5.1 Mbps.

Japan trails South Korea with an average of 15.8 Mbps, followed by Sweden at 12.8 Mbps and the Netherlands at 11.0 Mbps, the report said, adding that tests conducted by found the average U.S. download speed had improved by only nine-tenths of a megabit per second between 2008 and 2009.

“The U.S. has not made significant improvement in the speeds at which residents connect to the internet,” the report concluded. “Our nation continues to fall far behind other countries.”

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