Amidst a television landscape of authenticated streaming, pointless restrictions on online viewing, inflated sports rights fees, a-la-carte debates, cord-cutting debates, five-dollar ESPNs, and contentious carriage disputes, a technology giant that originally made its money on the technology responsible for all of this is about to give a bunch of ordinary people in America’s heartland a taste of the future.
Google is about to launch its new Google Fiber project in the Kansas City area, and it provides a glimpse into how what we now know as a cable provider might look in the future. At first glance, it’s offering a standard TV/Internet bundle, but Google seems to see it as substantially more than how you might be seeing it, that it’s not clear where the TV ends and the Internet begins, if it does at all. In addition to an HD-ready “TV box” and network connectivity, Google is also offering a “storage box” with two terabytes of DVR storage (including the ability to record eight shows at once) and other functionality, as well as a free Nexus 7 tablet (advertised as “your new remote” while also touting the ability to share your TV viewing with friends), a free 1TB Google Drive account, and the chance to buy a Chromebook on top of everything else. (I’m guessing either the TV or storage boxes will come with Google TV as well; Google is promoting Netflix integration with the service. It’s also possible to just get the network box and Google Drive account without the TV hookup or anything else.) According to Google, its gigabit Internet speeds are 100 times the norm in the industry – enough, it believes, to completely revolutionize the Internet experience – and it claims to be able to deliver HD with zero compression.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the rollout of Google Fiber, though, has to do with the process of getting it. Part of the reason why cable companies tend to have effective monopolies – and why the “last mile” problem in installing fiber-optic networks has been so intractable – has to do with the nature of the technology and the expense of laying down wires across a large urban or suburban area. Google, by contrast, decided to save money by only building its network in areas that wanted it enough to justify the expense. So it divided the two Kansas Cities up into 202 “fiberhoods” and gave each one a threshold for pre-registrations it had to meet for anyone to get Fiber installed. To sweeten the pot for anyone who would normally be uninterested, Google has even offered Internet service at typical broadband speeds for a one-time $300 construction fee (payable in $25 installments for the first year), and completely free thereafter. Google is also providing full service to community buildings in each fiberhood for free as well. As a result, 180 of the 202 fiberhoods met their respective thresholds before Sunday’s deadline, nearly 90 percent of all the fiberhoods Google identified.
There is a massive Achilles heel in Google’s pitch, as right now its TV lineup has some glaring omissions – most notably, the Fox and TimeWarner cable networks (including the Turner networks and HBO) as well as AMC. One wonders if those companies are trying to slow down what could prove to be a massive disruption to their business model, though Google did recently get the Disney networks, including ESPN, on board. By forcing neighborhoods to pay first before Google will connect them, it could also leave poorer neighborhoods out in the cold. Still, if it works (and many in the old guard are skeptical), I wonder if this could prove to be a paradigm shift in the cable industry, one pointing to a future of blurrier lines between TV and Internet, one where the infrastructure needed to bring both technologies into the future becomes cost-affordable by building it only in the places where it’ll be most profitable, and thus one where that future, one that blows the massive potential of the Internet wide open and where TV as we know it today ceases to exist, becomes a reality.