What if Google
(GOOG) wanted to give Wi-Fi
access to everyone in America? And what if it had technology capable of targeting
advertising to a user’s precise location? The gatekeeper of the world’s
information could become one of the globe’s biggest Internet
providers and one of its most powerful ad sellers, basically supplanting telecoms
in one fell swoop. Sounds crazy, but how might Google go about it?
First it would build a national broadband
network -- let's call it the GoogleNet -- massive enough to rival even the country's
biggest Internet service providers. Business 2.0 has learned from telecom insiders
that Google is already building such a network, though ostensibly for many reasons.
For the past year, it has quietly been shopping for miles and miles of "dark,"
or unused, fiber-optic cable across the country from wholesalers such as New
York’s AboveNet. It's also acquiring superfast connections from Cogent
Communications and WilTel, among others, between East Coast cities including
Atlanta, Miami, and New York. Such large-scale purchases are unprecedented for
an Internet company, but Google's timing is impeccable. The rash of telecom
has freed up a ton of bargain-priced capacity, which Google needs as it prepares
to unleash a flood of new, bandwidth-hungry applications. These offerings could
include everything from a digital-video database to on-demand television
An even more compelling reason for Google to build its own network is that
it could save the company millions of dollars a month. Here's why: Every time
a user performs a search on Google, the data is transmitted over a network owned
by an ISP
-- say, Comcast
(CMCSK) -- which links up with Google's servers
via a wholesaler like AboveNet. When AboveNet bridges that gap between Google
and Comcast, Google has to pay as much as $60 per megabit per second per month
in IP transit fees. As Google adds bandwidth-intensive services, those costs
will increase. Big networks owned by the likes of AT&T
(T) get around transit fees by striking "peering"
arrangements, in which the networks swap traffic and no money is exchanged.
By cutting out middlemen like AboveNet, Google could share traffic directly
with ISPs to avoid fees.
So once the GoogleNet is built, how would consumers connect for free access?
One of the cheapest ways would be for Google to blanket major cities with Wi-Fi,
and evidence gathered by Business 2.0 suggests that the company may be trying
to do just that. In April it launched a Google-sponsored Wi-Fi hotspot in San
Francisco’s Union Square shopping district, built by a local startup
called Feeva. Feeva is reportedly readying more free hotspots
in California, Florida, New York, and Washington, and it's possible that Google
may be involved. Feeva CEO Nitin Shah confirms that the company is working with
Google but won't discuss details. Google's interest in Feeva likely stems from
the startup's proprietary technology, which can determine the location of every
Wi-Fi user and would allow Google to serve up advertising
and maps based on real-time data.
What Google Has on Deck
A sample of the high-bandwidth applications in need of the GoogleNet.
Service - Print
Status - Beta
Purpose - Lets readers peruse and search the entire contents
of public-domain books on the Web.
Service - Earth
Status - PC Only Download
Purpose - Uses satellite photos to explore landmarks and present
geographic information at street-level views.
Service - Video Search
Status - Beta
Purpose - Searches archived television content ranging from
sports to documentaries to news shows.
Service - Music
Status - Rumored
Purpose - Might troll podcasts and other audio files so they'd
show up in search results.
Service - TV
Status - Rumored
Purpose - Could let users share personal videos with friends
and watch on-demand television programming.
Service - Talk
Status - Speculated
Purpose - Would use VOIP technology to dial phone numbers that
appear in local search results.
So is Google about to offer free Net access to everyone? Characteristically,
the company is cryptic about its goal. "We are sponsoring [Feeva] because
[it is] trying to make free Wi-Fi available in San Francisco, and this matches
Googles goal to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible,"
says Google spokesman Nate Taylor. "We don't have anything to add at this
point about future plans." To which we speculate: Today San Francisco,
tomorrow the world