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Google Goes Broadband, Big Time

Google's own corporate blog is breaking some big-time broadband newstoday: Google plans to build out its own broadband testbed, bringing unbelievably fast bandwidth to homes and business in test markets across the United States, targeting from 50,000 to a half million potential users.

The plan is ambitious: Google says the network it will build will feature download speeds at up to 1 gig a second, offering the potential for data downloads 100 times faster than what broadband offers today. Google isn't providing a time-frame just yet, or even how much all of this will cost, but the company is taking applications on its Web site from communities interested in participating in the tests.

Google also says it is cooperating with the Federal Communications Commission on developing a National Broadband Strategy. Soon after the Google news broke, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski released a statement, saying, in part, "Big broadband creates big opportunities. This significant trial will provide an American testbed for the next generation of innovative, high-speed Internet apps, devices and services."

Google's initiative comes at a time when the nation seems starved for more bandwidth and more reliable networks. AT&T and Verizon have been locked in a pitched battle about data coverage and which network is quicker and more reliable. However, consumers seem disappointed in both networks, especially as smart phones, netbooks and soon tablet PC's tax these networks even more.

The Google push into broadband comes at a perfect time, and just goes to show that this is a company, like Amazon and Apple , hardly standing still. But unlike so many other ventures Google has tried, this one might see some real, and quick, returns depending upon how quickly the company can deploy this technology. To wit, when Google released Nexus One, it did so in a crowded market with a product that was priced at a premium; when Google announced just yesterday its new social networking plans with Buzz, it did so at a time when Facebook not only owns the market, but is enjoying accelerated momentum. A broadband initiative is different.

With customer dissatisfaction reigning supreme, and high-speed bandwidth still a rare commodity — and getting rarer by the day — there might be real opportunity to show the market the real possibilities, and then grab some marketshare along the way. If I'm AT&T or Verizon, I'm not a happy camper this morning. And if I'm Comcast(full disclosure, Comcast is in the process of buying the parent of this network), I'm concerned about a deep-pocketed competitor who may in fact be offering very real and compelling alternative to my services.

Says Verizon today: "The internet ecosystem is dynamic and competitive, and it's delivering great benefits to consumers. Google's expansion of its networks to enter the access market is another new paragraph in this exciting story."

Google also is burning the internet candle from both sides: On the one hand, the company has been a vocal proponent of net neutrality, arguing that network service providers ought to open their pipes to all companies, no matter the bandwidth being used. Sure, these companies would have to pay a price, and FCC Chairman Genachowski has told me in a few interviews that network providers will certainly be compensated fairly for network access. But now Google itself is positioning itself as a "network service provider" and you have to wonder whether it will feel comfortable spending all this money on a network build-out and still be as big a net-neutrality proponent.

"Spending all this money" is also an interesting concept. Sources tell me Google has already been spending on this plan, and it's unlikely that this initiative will include a large capital outlay to get it going. In other words, I'm not anticipating Wall Street to scale back earnings expectations because of this announcement.

In a brief exchange with Google's Minnie Ingersoll, product manager, this morning, we had three quick questions:

Us: What kind of financial investment will be going into the project and the time frame?

Them: It is too early to announce a specific dollar amount, as countless factors will play a role in determining an estimated cost. Right now our focus is on finding the right community partners.

Us: When will it be in service?

Them: Today's announcement is the first of many steps along the way. First, we have to find the right community partners, and we'll collaborate with those partners on a future launch timeline. Our plan is to have a network up and running as soon as possible.

Us: Will the roll-out be in California or elsewhere in the country?

Them: Today we're inviting interested municipalities and citizens to provide us with information about their communities through a "Request for Information" (RFI), which we'll use to build our experimental network. We hope to receive many high quality submissions in order to have a good selection of options for the project.

Also, even though broadband build-out funding is a part of the Federal stimulus program, Google tells me this morning that it will take no federal money for this project.

Unlike so many other Google initiatives, more than merely intriguing, this one might offer real promise.

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