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What’s Google’s network plan?

Mar 20, 200612 mins
Cellular NetworksNetworkingWAN

Recent moves spark varied speculation.

Most of the gab around Google focuses on a possible desktop slugfest with Microsoft, but the real action may be on the WAN, where Google might be gearing up for a donnybrook with ISPs, telcos and cable operators.

Although most of the gab about Google focuses on a possible desktop slugfest with Microsoft, the real action may be on the WAN, where Google might be gearing up for a donnybrook with the incumbent service providers.

For more than a year, rumors have been circulating about Google’s WAN intentions. According to Business 2.0,  Google has been shopping for “miles and miles” of dark fiber from wholesalers, such as New York’s AboveNet, and it has also acquired fast-fiber links from carriers such as Cogent Communications and WilTel between several East Coast cities, including Atlanta, Miami and New York.

Google is even shopping for network expertise, as witnessed by an ad on its site for a strategic negotiator who can handle “identification, selection and negotiation of dark fiber contracts both in metropolitan areas and over long distances as part of development of a global backbone network; contracts and negotiation for managed metropolitan services and long-haul wavelength services to fulfill capacity and redundancy requirements in North America, Latin America, Asia, and Europe.”

The company also is making moves into the wireless arena, bidding for Wi-Fi contracts in major cities such as San Francisco.

Connecting the dots, some Google-watchers are speculating the company wants to leverage its vast knowledge of user surfing habits with its fiber backbone to become an ISP that can offer a faster Internet experience than the traditional players. After all, if you were a company doing e-commerce, wouldn’t you want your site hosted by, or running over, the fastest network?

But others doubt Google would want to barge into the already mature and less-than-lucrative ISP or Web-hosting markets.

Still, Google’s deep pockets, Internet expertise and newly acquired fiber play into other, more interesting scenarios, which may change the way we use the Internet.

Perhaps Google is lining itself up to become a major player in the premium content-delivery game, as attested to by its recent unveiling of Google Video and Google Web Accelerator.

Or maybe its investment in the peer-to-peer Wi-Fi company FON, plus its bid to provide municipal Wi-Fi in San Francisco, means it’s toying with the idea of becoming a wireless ISP. Strategically, this would be a defensive maneuver to prevent cable companies and RBOCs from monopolizing Web access.

Or it could be sticking to its current business model whereby more consumers on the Internet translate into more ad dollars for Google. If so, its goal is to ensure free (or nearly free) access to the entire realm of Web content, leaving expensive, premium access to the Verizons and Comcasts of the world.

First, the facts

Google has leased an estimated 311,000 square feet of space at 111 Eighth Ave., one of the largest carrier hotels in Manhattan, according to published reports.

The company also confirms it is buying up dark fiber, hiring network experts and making other net-centric investments, but it says it is only trying to build out its own internal infrastructure.

“We don’t have any plans to announce about becoming an ISP,” says Google spokesman Nathan Tyler, via e-mail. “We often do get questions about dark fiber to which we respond with: Google is one of the larger sites on the Internet, and our operation requires a significant network component. It is common in the industry to use a combination of different products – such as fiber, leased lines and ISP bandwidth – to implement networks and thus it should not come as a surprise that we have been looking into these areas.”

The experts agree that Google could be using the flurry of fiber and network acquisitions to support its own business.

“Google is a huge company, and it’s getting bigger,” says Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom analyst. “It has its own networks that are linking its operations centers all over the place, across cities, from coast to coast. The dark fiber could be a way of delivering increased services to customers, but it could also just be for their own internal operations.”

Like any big company, Google is investing in its own private network, and that makes economic sense.

“It’s obviously trying to reduce its own dependence on the ISPs for its own internal purposes at least,” says Fred Goldstein, principal at Ionary Consulting. “They’ve built their own backbone network. They bought the fiber, and this way they become much more self-contained and self-reliant.”

But if that’s the sole reason, why the concentration in major metropolitan areas? And why all the investment in wireless? How do these initiatives play into Google’s stance on network neutrality and its relationship to the RBOCs and the cable companies? Google declined to respond to these queries, but here’s what the experts think.

Google, the premium content provider

One theory, proffered by Thomas Nolle, president of CIMI, a telecom consultancy, is that Google is building out its own parallel Internet, something he terms “PortalNet.” The idea is that the advertising business is bound to level off eventually, and Google, seeing the writing on the wall, is gearing up to enter the more lucrative business of premium content delivery.

(In fact, Google’s stock went into a brief tailspin last month when the company announced that growth in advertising revenue – which accounts for 97% of Google revenue – is slowing down.)

Or, as Google CFO George Reyes put it recently, the company needs to find “new ways to monetize the business.”

The key to making money selling content, however, is ensuring premium delivery. And that’s where the dark fiber comes in.

“PortalNet is a fiber-based network that essentially parallels the Internet and delivers Google content directly to the edge of the access network, bypassing all of the Internet peering arrangements,” Nolle says. “So Google can create a premium infrastructure that can deliver videos to the access edge better than the Internet can, which means that Google then is preferenced in the content battle.”

Nolle says Google’s forays into wireless are designed to keep the idea of alternative access alive in the hearts and minds of consumers. “Google and Skype are trying to raise the profile of alternative access,” he says. This way, they can dangle the threat of bypass over the access providers’ heads and probably reduce the likelihood that access providers will upgrade their infrastructures and become strong competitors.

Nolle discounts the idea that wireless is a legitimate alternative to cable and DSL for delivering premium content. “If you’ve ever used a wireless LAN in a hotel, for example, you know darn well that you could never make content work over that.” Even WiMAX won’t be adequate, he says. “It’s a shared facility, and shared facilities don’t do well with high-QoS applications. If I had 10 people doing [high-definition television] delivery, I’d blow a 50Mbps network.”

Google, the white knight WISP

Others beg to differ. Goldstein sees wireless as a viable option for Google in its battle to ensure non-commercial common access to Internet content. “Google recognizes that as a search engine, the value of their search is really capped by accessibility to everything being searched,” Goldstein says.

He says the call by the RBOCs and cable providers to charge certain service providers, including Google, more for delivering their “premium” services creates a “walled garden” version of the Internet. The RBOCs and cable companies might offer high-quality service but would offer access only to the specific sites that agree to pay extra.

“You don’t need much of a search in a walled garden, so the whole raison d’être behind the core of Google’s business is seriously jeopardized by this sort of approach,” he says.

As a defensive measure, then, Google might set out to build a nationwide wireless access network, in direct competition with the RBOCs and cable companies. High-quality service is possible with WiMAX, Goldstein says, but only if licensed spectrum is available to ensure it. And that’s something that will become available in June, when the government auctions off its Advanced Wireless Services band (1.7GHz to 2.1GHz) and offers it for civilian use.

“What if Google decided to go to this auction and pick up 10MHz of spectrum everywhere,” Goldstein says. “They could probably get a 10MHz nationwide license on the order of $2 billion or $3 billion. There are not a lot of companies who can just shell out that kind of money and hand it to the government, but Google could.”

He says Google could then franchise the spectrum to smaller wireless ISPs, which pledge to meet Google’s standards, and link everything up with its new fiber backbone – resulting in a nationwide access network. The kicker is that Google doesn’t need to make money on the endeavor. “The point of doing it, as a business proposition, is it’s not there to make a lot of money. It’s there to keep the big boys honest,” he says.Google, the free Web

Others say wireless networks, especially the metropolitan networks, do indeed come into play, and that Google is leveraging – not abandoning – its ad-based business model.

“Once you get involved in the ad-based business model, you see that the mathematics are just unbelievable from a revenue and a profitability standpoint,” says Frank Dzubeck, president of Communication Network Architects. He notes that with countries around the world, such as Korea, Germany, Japan and China, beginning to embrace the ad model, that math won’t change anytime soon. “That’s why Google is growing like crazy.”

The issue for Google is to provide as many people as possible with access, even free access, to the Internet, because that’s how it gets paid – a notion that is in direct opposition to the business model of the RBOCs and cable companies, which make money on access fees.

Dzubeck says what’s behind Google’s dark-fiber and network purchases is this idea of metropolitan wireless networks.

“The expenditures that are required to build a wireless Wi-Fi or WiMAX network for a metropolitan structure are a lot less than they are required to build a wireline base,” Dzubeck says. “When AT&T did their WiMAX tests and trials in Manhattan, the deployment was unbelievably simple. All they did was put [the radios] on top of the tall buildings and then drop the fiber right down to the fiber nodes they had. It was beautiful.”

While Nolle questions whether metropolitan wireless can offer enough bandwidth for advanced services, Dzubeck maintains that “the service is comparable.” And the number of base stations and radios necessary are far less than most people think, Dzubeck says. “Intel says you only need eight base stations for San Francisco, which has a population of about 800,000. So that’s 100,000 people per base station,” he says.

The dark fiber comes into play to connect the nodes cross-country. He notes that Google won’t necessarily need to build these metropolitan networks itself, but instead, municipalities will or other Internet powerhouses such as Yahoo, Microsoft and eBay will step up to the plate to fund them. These next-generation companies all make more money when more consumers access their services, so in the end, it will be seen as just a cost of sales, he says.

Once these metropolitan networks are in place, sometime around 2008, they will change the economic structure of the Internet, he says. “If a metro net goes in, and you’re able to get reasonable access, let’s say 2Mbps, why would you pay for DSL or a cable connection to your house?” Dzubeck says.

In the end, the Internet will be available for free (on the ad model), just as network television used to be free, in the good old prepay TV days.

Google and the other next-generation companies figure they will take the far larger free market, which might not provide the most premium, optimum service, and leave the smaller high-quality marketplace to the RBOCs and cable companies.

“When you want to pay for quality, you’ll end up doing it,” he says. “You want content delivered to your home theater? Fine, you get it delivered by the RBOCs. But if you just want something down-and-dirty in a train or in a car, to have the kids look at something in the back seat, you’ll take it free off the ‘Net. Google still makes out there, because they have the search engine for all those videos.”

And once people can connect to the Internet wirelessly and for free in any major metropolitan area across the country, the revenue-generating possibilities of a company such as Google explode. This is what’s behind the company’s new initiatives such as Google Mobile, Google Local and Google Earth, he says.But what are they doing really?

Of course, people can speculate all they want. but no one knows for sure what Google’s vision is. The one sure thing is that whatever Google decides to do, it has the money and the clout to make a big splash.

“Google is really important, because we have to assume that for all the debate on net neutrality, we’re not going to see any meaningful change of public policy,” Nolle says. “So this issue of the balance of power between the access carriers and the Internet community will get resolved in the commercial marketplace, and in that marketplace Google is the 900-pound gorilla. What everybody else thinks almost doesn’t matter. What everybody else does almost doesn’t matter. It’s what Google does.”

Cummings is a freelance writer in Massachusetts. She can be reached at