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We All Need Google Fiber

Fri, 04/12/2013 - 9:00am
Joel Hans, Managing Editor, Manufacturing.net

Almost a year ago, Google launched its first broadband internet network, Google Fiber, in Kansas City (the Kansas and Missouri versions both), with speeds that severely overshadowed currently-available cable and DSL providers for a fraction of the cost. Consumers were able to sign up for 1 gigabit download speeds for a mere $70 a month. And while the provider landscape is a little different up here in Madison, Wisconsin, I currently fork over $30 a month to Charter for 30 megabit/second (Mbps) download speeds, as a frame of reference. And I only got that because I threatened to cancel.

By the numbers, this means I pay a buck for every megabit of bandwidth. With Google Fiber, those lucky Kansas Citians, they’re paying 7 cents for the same capacity. It’s no wonder that the service has positively taken off — it’s an incredible jump in service in every way. And while regular consumers have been enjoying the buffering-free YouTube videos, the service has also been attracting businesses and cultivating a general sense of municipal progress.

And now, Google is rolling out its fiber network to Austin, Texas. I’m just a little jealous. Not so much for the searing heat and humidity in the summer, or the awful traffic, or that terrible influx of visitors during events like SXSW, but with Internet speeds like that, what’s the point in going outside, anyway? Google released the following promotional video:

Back when Google Fiber was announced, I felt relatively confident that Madison was a good suitor — it’s a hub of high-tech education and research, and there’s a number of businesses that would benefit from it. But, at least for the time being, it’s not in the cards, unfortunately. And with Google’s reasons for laying fiber in the first place still unclear — do they want to become a legitimate ISP or are they simply scaring cable and DSL companies into innovation — it seems that we’ll have to wait it out in the cold.

Either way, Google Fiber is good for everyone, even though we shouldn’t have to rely on search engine and advertising giant, of all companies, to provide us with 21st Century internet service. It’s a shame that in today’s world, one of the critical components of our nation’s infrastructure is being held back by cable and DSL providers that are too afraid to too greedy to make their networks faster. I just can’t see Charter offering me a 33x faster connection for only double the monthly price.

Using millions of global stats fed from SpeedTest, a site called Net Index shows just how dismal the situation is for American Internet access. On raw speed, the U.S. is ranked 33rd in the world. We’re behind almost the entire EU in terms of speed, cost, value and reliability, and are woefully crushed by some major bright spots in Asia

In response to this, some say the U.S. can’t compete against small countries like Hong Kong or Singapore, two of the leaders, simply because it’s so much easier for them to lay out high-speed fiber networks — Singapore is roughly the same size as Manhattan and the other four NYC boroughs.

But what about Russia? Their average cost per Mbps is $1.42 USD, while the U.S. languishes with an average cost of $4.29. Their average speed is faster, too, at 18.56 Mbps compared to our 16.96 Mbps. And I know there’s a lot of rural space in America, but all the Great Plains ranchland pales in comparison to Siberia. The argument that ultra-fast broadband infrastructure is just too hard to lay out is rubbish.

We should be happy, of course, that we’re not worse off — some economic powers get by on far, far less than we do. China gets an average of 9.44 Mbps, Mexico an average of 7.94 Mbps and India languishes at 2.94 Mbps. But since when has “good enough” been the status quo for the American economy?

Investment in these ultra-fast networks is important, because a faster broadband isn’t just a boon for web start-ups — it affects the way everyone does business, even manufacturers. Internet that is unreliable, which we have here on occasion at the Manufacturing.net office, creates dead time and keeps myself and fellow editors from keeping our sites up-to-date, prevents our sales staff from reaching out to more potential advertisers and creates headaches for the IT department. Slow service, which we see every day, just mucks down the process.

Same goes for manufacturers. Salespeople need to get out and make new connections, which is easier and faster with a better broadband infrastructure. Engineers need to have necessary data and research capabilities at their fingertips as quickly as possible. With the advent of ever-more complex manufacturing processes, manufacturers need to transfer and process increasingly large files. A faster and more reliable connection helps manufacturers get up-to-the-second updates on the status of their supply chain, which could be the difference between a shipment stuck in transit or sneaking in at the last minute.

And yet despite all these gains that can be had from faster, more reliable service, we all seem to be collectively “OK” with what we have. If it works most of the time and can still download a large file within a not-rage-inducing period of time, we don’t clamor for more. If a manufacturer settled for that kind of sloppiness on their plant floor, they would have gone out of business years ago. It’s just not efficient or cost-effective in today’s competitive landscape. It’s not Lean in the least.

I don’t quite side with the U.N. that Internet is a basic human right, but I do think it’s a basic stepping stone to doing better business. It’s part of our necessary infrastructure. And the fact that we’re allowing ourselves to be shackled by the existing providers is pretty pathetic, and it means every American city could use a savior like Google Fiber. Of course, I’d be happy (and I’m sure many tech-savvy Americans would be) with anything that’s more harmonious with the state of overall technological development in this country.

Over the last five years, smartphones have gotten at least an order of magnititude faster — why hasn’t broadband followed suit?

Google is proving we can do better. How long until the current providers catch up? I’m not going to hold my breath — as Google continues its rollout, there’s no doubt we’ll hear from analysts and competitors alike as they argue such a business is unsustainable, or that it’s just not possible. Of course, those in Austin will be too busy on the web to bother with the naysayers.

In the promotional video for Google Fiber, embedded above, Sen. Kirk Watson (D-TX) says, “I don’t think any Austinite can tell you what Google Fiber will mean to Austin a year from now. And that’s really the cool part. Because in Austin … we’re ready to see what it will do, and I will promise you it’s going to be fun by the end.”

Other infrastructure revolutions, such as rail, highways and electrical grids helped push American industry to new heights. It’s time for the web. For those outside of Kansas City and Austin, the fiber revolution can’t come fast enough. I have no doubt the process of going fiber is going to be “fun” for Austinites. I’m just worried the rest of us, without Google’s blessed touch, are going to get stuck in a web purgatory, forever buffering.

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