Friday, February 12, 2010

Google’s Broadband Projects

Chances are few U.S. readers have ever heard of something called a “test and demonstration project.” We don’t have a lot of public private partnerships here. Either the mighty marketplace stimulates private entrepreneurial juices, or the government provides subsidies often to the very carriers that did not see the payoff in using their own funds. Test and demonstration projects typically blend government and private venture participants in a project that can test the technological viability of a project and also measure the publics’ interest and willingness to pay for access to the technology.

Google’s broadband projects may provide a third model: a privately funded venture that has little expectation of profit, but which serves public and private goals. Perhaps Google’s ample retained earnings make it easier for the company to afford “lost leaders.” Likewise, Google surely gets ample free press and public relations dividends just by announcing its goodwill endeavor. Maybe Google sponsored projects will show other carriers the merits in enhancing the broadband value proposition by lowering monthly subscription rates, and/or raising delivery speeds. Surely Google does not have to prove that broadband networks can deliver 1 Gigabit per second. They exist, but not in the U.S. of course.

Google might not need to secure federal regulatory authority for any project, but the same cannot be said at the state level. In Pennsylvania, where I live, Verizon secured a right of first refusal by law. I don’t see Verizon objecting to any Google project in Pennsylvania, but I doubt whether Verizon would consider significant any “proof of concept” made by Google.

I believe incumbent carriers, such as Verizon and AT&T, do not yet consider it necessary and cost effective to enhance the value proposition in broadband. The margins are quite generous, but these carriers have more to gain and lose in wireless. Absent far greater competitive necessity --not something any Google project will generate—incumbent broadband providers can make do just fine with often duopolistic markets offering on a global comparative basis mediocre bitrates at relatively high cost.