Google doesn't want to be your Internet service provider; rather, it wants to make your ISP behave in a more Google-friendly manner.
This is why, over the past several years, the Internet search giant has used its financial clout and the strength of its brand to make regular forays into the telecommunications industry. From lobbying for network neutrality legislation to developing its own mobile phone and operating system to creating an experimental high-speed broadband network, Google hasn't been shy about throwing its weight around on the carriers' turf.
And what does Google want from all this? Essentially it wants to give carriers less control over what they can and cannot do with their networks. For instance, one goal of the Android platform was to get the carriers to be less strict about what applications and content they will allow to run over their wireless networks. Net neutrality, meanwhile, will prevent carriers from giving priority to their own content over the content of rival ISPs and Internet companies.
Here we take a look at Google's major telecom initiatives while breaking down their overarching goals and the level of success they have achieved.
Initiative #1: Network neutrality
Purpose: Google isn't fighting this particular battle alone as several Internet companies and consumer groups have been advocating for net neutrality rules over the past five years. The push for net neutrality began in 2005, when incumbent telecom carriers successfully lobbied the Federal Communications Commission to repeal common carrier rules that required the incumbents to allow ISPs such as EarthLink to buy space on their broadband networks at discount rates. Both the Web companies and the consumer groups feared that this would lead to a small handful of large ISPs consolidating power over Internet access, thus giving them the power to slow or degrade competitors' traffic.
Or as Harold Feld, the senior vice president for the open media advocacy group Media Access Project, explained to Network World last year, "Before 2005 we didn't need [net neutrality] because we had a separation rule where carriers had to sell access to their underlying network. AT&T and Verizon were never allowed to touch EarthLink's DSL operation."
So in lieu of bringing back common carrier rules for telcos and cable companies, the Web companies began pushing for net neutrality regulations as the next-best solution. Broadly speaking, net neutrality is the principle that ISPs should not be allowed to block or degrade Internet traffic from their competitors in order to speed up their own. The major telcos have uniformly opposed net neutrality by arguing that such government intervention would take away ISPs' incentives to upgrade their networks, thus stalling the widespread deployment of broadband Internet.
Results: As far as Google is concerned, so far, so good. Last fall FCC chairman Julius Genachowski proposed two new rules to commission policy that would bar carriers from blocking or degrading lawful Web traffic and that would force carriers to be more open about their traffic management practices. The battle isn't yet over, however, as both Verizon and AT&T have been actively fighting final commission approval of the two rules. The carriers have argued that restricting their ability to favor certain content and to create tiered services would take away their financial incentives to invest in network upgrades. Additionally, the carriers have successfully lobbied several politicians, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, to try to block the FCC's proposed net neutrality rules before they are even voted on by the commission.
Initiative #2: Android and the Google Nexus One
The Android operating system and the Nexus One smartphone are both part of Google's vision of having wireless devices that aren't tied down to any particular network. In other words, Google wants users to eventually be able to take their favorite devices with them from one carrier to another without having to buy a whole new device.
The first part of implementing this vision came in 2007, when Google unveiled its long-awaited Android open-source mobile operating system. At the time of the platform's release, Google said it wanted Android to be a starting point for spurring innovation in developing mobile applications that would give users the same experience surfing the Web on their phone as they currently have on their desktop computers. In the two-plus years since its debut, Android has landed on several high-profile devices, including the Motorola Droid, the HTC myTouch 3G and the Samsung Moment. Now that the Motorola Backflip has debuted on AT&T's network, all four major carriers in the United States now support Android-based devices.
But while Android phones clearly generated a lot of market hype over the past two years, they have also largely been tied to exclusivity agreements that make their use dependent on individual carriers. With this in mind, Google late last year launched its own Nexus One smartphone, which will run on both the T-Mobile and Verizon networks. The Nexus One doesn't, however, mark any intention by Google to get heavily involved in the handset market. Rather, the company is using the Nexus One as a showcase for the Android platform's potential when running on a device that has the most cutting-edge hardware and software available on the market.
Results: By all accounts, Android has been a big hit so far. The number of Android-based devices grew at a rapid clip during the fourth quarter of 2009 and Android phones now account for just over 7% of all smartphones sold in the United States.
As for the Nexus One, we aren't likely to see its full impact until it makes its debut on the Verizon network sometime this spring. However, just because both T-Mobile and Verizon will be supporting the Nexus One, don't think that you can merely cancel your subscription to one of the carriers and bring your device onto another network. Since Verizon uses the CDMA-based EV-DO Rev. A 3G technology and T-Mobile uses the GSM-based HSPA 4G technology, Google has had to design two different Nexus One devices that will be compatible with each network. So basically, don't set your sights on carrier-hopping until Google comes out with a 4G phone that can run on LTE, the GSM-based 4G technology that has been adopted by T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon.
Initiative #3: The experimental broadband network
This could be Google's most audacious project to date, as the company announced last month on its blog that is constructing an experimental fiber network that it says will "deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today with 1 gigabit per second, fiber-to-the-home connections."
To be clear, this project is unlikely to threaten the big ISPs' bottom lines since Google says it plans to only offer access to the network in "a small number of trial locations" and that it will serve anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 people. But much like its efforts with Android and the Nexus One, Google's plan to deploy a high-speed fiber network is less about competing directly with incumbent companies and more about pushing incumbent companies to change how they operate.
Or put another way, Google is trying pressure carriers to step up their games and hasten their plans to build out more high-speed networks. With typical broadband speeds lagging behind those in countries such as South Korea and Japan, Google is seemingly trying to give U.S. carriers a kick in the pants by saying, "If we can build a network this fast that serves large numbers of people, so can you." And what's more, the Google network will be open access, meaning third-party service providers will be able to use it to deliver Internet to their customers. In this way, Google is trying to bring back discarded common carrier rules by showing that it's possible to have a strong and successful fiber network that third-party service providers can use to wholesale access to subscribers.
Results: The limited scope of the network means that it could easily be brushed off as an interesting novelty that would make an unrealistic model for a nationwide high-speed fiber network. Even so, the mere fact that the Google brand is behind the new network – and the fact that Google's other telecom initiatives have had a good level of success so far – means that the network's development and implementation will garner plenty of industry attention.