Google throws down the broadband gauntlet

You have to give Google points for great timing — and an entertaining sense of mischief. Just as the telcos are gearing up for battle with the FCC over the feasibility of widespread broadband, Google rolls out an audacious new plan to deliver gigabit/sec residential connectivity to some 500,000 users.

Google to test ultra high-speed broadband networks

The move is a direct challenge to both the FCC and the telcos whose Internet business the FCC is seeking to regulate. On March 17, the FCC plans to roll out its Broadband Internet Stimulus plan, which aims to mandate low-cost, high-speed, universal connectivity. The FCC's vision is that every household should have 100Mbps Internet access within the next 10 years.

The carriers say it can't be done — that 100Mbps within 10 years is too aggressive. And they also say the FCC has no right to regulate Internet access (including broadband) in order to reach its universal-service goals. Specifically, a federal appeals court is set to rule over the FCC's ability to regulate broadband, stemming from a 2007 case in which the FCC fined Comcast for violating net neutrality policies. If the ruling is overturned (which court watchers say is likely) it will be on the grounds that the FCC lacks jurisdiction over telcos' Internet access offerings.

If that happens, the Broadband Stimulus plan is dead in the water, since it relies on mandating broadband access. Unless, that is, the FCC moves to reclassify Internet services as so-called title II common carrier services, which transport people or goods under regulatory supervision. The carriers have preemptively warned the FCC not to attempt to do that, calling reclassification akin to opening Pandora's box.

So on the one hand, you have the carriers howling about the impossibility of ubiquitous broadband. On the other, there's the FCC threatening to use the big stick of regulation to make the carriers roll it out. And over on the sideline, Google's doubtless giggling over the way its own broadband network makes both the telcos and the FCC look lame.

But Google's glee may be premature. If the FCC succeeds in reclassifying Internet access as title II services, Google may find itself and its broadband network under regulation — not nearly as much fun as watching the FCC regulate someone else. And broadband isn't the only potential for regulation — a U.K.-based Web site recently filed a motion with the FCC requesting enforcement of "open search" rules to complement net neutrality.

If all this comes to pass, Google may be trading gauntlets for boxing gloves — and gearing up for a tussle of its own with the FCC.

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