Google wants to see what it's like when a community has the fastest available, practical broadband service: 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) over fiber optic lines. (If you don't remember your computer number prefixes, that's 1,000 times faster than 1 megabit per second (Mbps)). Most home Internet service is between 1.5 Mbps and 15 Mbps.
Most ordinary Internet use doesn't improve when you go beyond 25 to 50 Mbps: You can still stream video at the highest available quality, download movies and other files rapidly (a gigabyte in a few minutes or less), and browse the Web at its fastest setting—Web servers typically can't send you content faster than a few tens of Mbps.
So what's out there? Two-way video conference, telemedicine (remote diagnosis and high-quality imaging), and connecting among local home and office networks remotely at the same speeds you would get onsite.
Google's plan is to set up one or more large-scale functional trials—50,000 to 500,000 homes—bringing fiber to the home, a long-simmering notion in Seattle. Fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) service can be vastly higher than telephone and cable wire speeds, which have physical constraints. (You can get a good summary from my interview with Seattle Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier.)
Fiber rates can be several Gbps today per fiber strand, with many strands bundled in a single cable in commercial applications. The cost for delivering super-high speeds over fiber isn't about the distance from a central switching office, but rather the equipment that lives on each end.
There are no widespread commercial 1 Gbps FTTH efforts in the world, although there are trials and pilots, because the cost for end-point home adapters and central-office equipment is simply too high. A mass trial by Google could lead to cheaper 1 Gbps adapters and central gear, and prove that people are willing to subscribe to such networks.
The Google Fiber for Communities effort is soliciting proposals from communities and nominations from residents. Click the Get Involved link to nominate Seattle or another community.
I found out about this effort from the Beacon Hill Blog, which referenced an effort by Tracy Bier, a Seattleite who is trying to put together a coalition of south-and-central neighbors to push for better broadband service. Beacon Hill, the Central District, and other nearby areas have broadband speeds and qualities from existing providers that are the functional equivalent of small, rural towns.
Seattle's homegrown fiber efforts aren't dead, however. Mayor Mike McGinn has been dealing with a number of high-profile infrastructure and budget issues, but his office told me a few days ago that the mayor took the time to meet with City-Parish President Joey Durel of Lafayette, Louisiana, when Durel was in Seattle recently for the annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference.
Durel and his colleagues wanted to build a citywide fiber-to-the-home network to leapfrog the inadequate and sketchily available broadband in Lafayette. The city spent three years in litigation and marketing battles until it won decisively in court and began to build its network. (Amusingly, the delays saved the city money, as the cost of technology dropped far more than the cost of litigation, while allowing the city to install newer gear as well.)
Less visibly, Seattle fiber advocates continue to work on details of the plan, educate city officials, and gather more evidence that such networks have paid for themselves elsewhere.
It would lovely to imagine Google as a white knight, riding in to slay the incumbent broadband dragons, and carry us off to live in luxury in 1 Gbps wired magical castle. It could happen. But let's not hold our breath yet.