Google, a frequent opponent of Internet service providers in policy debates over net neutrality and other network practices, is planning to try its own hand as a broadband provider.
The search giant today described plans to launch trials of ultra-high-speed broadband networks in test markets throughout the United States, promising download speeds as high as 1 gigabit per second through fiber-to-the-home connections.
"We're doing this because we want to experiment with new ways to make the Web better and faster for everyone, allowing applications that would be impossible today," Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) product manager James Kelly said in a video outlining the initiative. "We also want to try out new ways to build and operate fiber networks and share what we learn with the world."
As part of its broadband initiative, Google said it would operate its networks under an open-access policy, allowing other service providers to tap into the underlying infrastructure. The company also emphasized that it would adhere to a non-discrimination provision regarding traffic management, reiterating its long-standing support for network neutrality.
Google's announcement comes as federal regulators are racing to complete a national broadband strategy, a blueprint of policy proposals for expanding availability and adoption of high-speed Internet service that is set to be delivered to Congress next month.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski praised Google's announcement, saying that the broadband plan the agency is developing would look to encourage similar private-sector initiatives.
"Big broadband creates big opportunities," Genachowski said in a statement. "This significant trial will provide an American testbed for the next generation of innovative, high-speed Internet apps, devices and services."
Google's support for net neutrality regulations has placed it at odds with many of the larger incumbent ISPs such as AT&T (NYSE: T) and Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA), which are opposing the FCC's efforts to enshrine non-discrimination principles as binding rules.
Google also crossed swords with the telecom sector when it entered an auction for wireless spectrum the FCC closed in March 2008, ponying up the $4.6 billion minimum bid needed to attach an open-access requirement to the most sought-after band of the 700 MHz airwaves, a condition that Verizon Wireless and others had sued to block. Google's participation in the spectrum auction sparked rumors of the company's interest in operating a broadband network, though it has since become clear that its primary objective was to trigger the open-access rules.
Then last January, Google launched a project called Measurement Lab, an open source effort to collect information about Internet connection speeds and network activity, aiming to expose, among other things, instances of ISPs throttling traffic.
Google, which already operates a Wi-Fi network in its home city of Mountain View, Calif., said it plans to deliver access at "competitive prices" to at least 50,000 people through the new networks, and potentially as many as 500,000.
The company has not identified its test markets, but is asking interested cities or communities to submit proposals by March 26, with the trials to be announced later this year.
"Working with the right community partners, we look forward to seeing what's possible," Kelly said.