The internet according to Google

05 Sep 2007

By the time this column hits your desk, everyone in the industry is probably talking about Google's bid, or intend to bid, for nationwide spectrum in an upcoming US government auction.
To recap the news, Google sent a letter to the honorable Kevin Martin, the chairman of the US FCC, urging that the FCC 'should extend to all CMRS-type spectrum licensees clearly delineated, explicitly enforceable, and unwavering obligations to provide (1) open applications, (2) open devices, (3) open wholesale services, and (4) open network access.'

The company also adds 'should the Commission expressly adopt the four license conditions requested in our July 9th letter - with specific, enforceable, and enduring rules - Google intends to commit a minimum of $4.6 billion to bidding in the upcoming auction.'

The 700-MHz spectrum - the former domain of analog television signals - will be available by February 2009, when broadcasters must transition to digital.

Google's letter caused much debate amongst the wireless industry in the US.

On one side, it is the cellular operators, that say that by requested the FCC to adopt conditions before the auction, Google is simply ensuring that it gets its way whether it bids or not since those conditions will serve the company regardless of whether it wins or not.

On the opposite side are those that see Google's request for 'openness' for the new spectrum as the catalysts that will stimulate innovation in the sector because it will facilitate the development of new devices, services and so on. Many on this side believe that 'openness' means standards that allow third-party devices to connect to it, much like the standard phone socket, which supports any fax machine, modem and so forth without having to get approval from the operator.

Vint Cerf, one of the inventors of the internet and now 'chief Internet evangelist' at Google, said the company still has not decided how it will use the spectrum if it gets its way. Discussions at Google on the topic are 'fluid,' Cerf told the Seattle Time's Brier Dudley on July 24.

Perhaps that is beside the point. By expressing its interest in securing spectrum, or how spectrum should be allocated, Google is raising the stakes of the internet game by a big margin.

Google everywhere

Today, the main difference between the fixed and wireless internet is access. On wireless networks, access and content are tied together by the cellular operator in the so-called walled-garden model - unless subscribers want to pay heavy, per-bit fees to access the standard web. With fixed connections, access is technology and service provider-agnostic and reach is universal. With any fixed connection to the internet, you can get to anywhere on the web, subscription-based services and restricted content aside.

By building its own wireless access network in the US, Google can recreate the cellular model, but on a massive scale across the entire country. By building the access network, the company could create a direct connection from customers into its own world of content, replicating the cellular operator's walled garden, but with access to a large part of all web content.

And by making access to this network standard for all third-party providers, it will allow anyone to develop devices to access its services.

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