Thursday, March 11, 2010

Will Google Fiber really help?

If you're the sort of person who reads this blog, you probably know that Duluth is in the running to become a test city for Google's proposed ultrahighspeed bandwidth test. At first, I really liked the idea of living in a city with 1 gigabit connection speed, aside from the fact that Google has no real experience running a local ISP (they already control huge amounts of fiber across the country, but it's backbone stuff) and a history of privacy violations (though as I've stated before, privacy is overrated).

But my fair city, in one of their many attempts to show their worth, decided to organize an idea contest with $500 dollar prize. Since I'm poor, and I consider myself to be smart, I decided that I would give it a shot. Here's the big problem that I hadn't really considered though; the 1 gigabit speeds would only be local. So if I were communicating with a server here in town, I would get that full experience, but anywhere else in the country would still be roughly the same speed because of the bottlenecks on their end.

The possibilities for ultrahighspeed are immense. High-definition video is what most people think of right off the bat; the high-def you see on YouTube comes in at about 5 Mbps, meaning that it's not even close to the real thing (Blu-ray has a bitrate of 40 Mbps). At 1 Gbps, a whole movie can be downloaded in about four minutes. I'll confess that I've done a little movie pirating, and waiting a couple of hours for DVD quality video is one of the reasons that owning a copy of movies isn't something that's done a lot (either legally or illegally). Fiber would allow a business model where people actually download movies for keeps - though it would probably be hamstrung by DRM. If your speeds are fast enough, there's no real need to ever download the movies in the first place; some large company would have a database table showing which movies you own, and you would be able to watch your movies from any browser with a fast enough connection. But there's not even any reason for notional ownership once you have that technology, because "rental" is instant, especially if the payment scheme is seamless. The paradigm will shift from "ownership" to "access". Movie rental places are already trying to do this, Netflix cheif among them with their on demand service.

Aside from raw content, of which video is definitely the most broadband intensive, the other lure of fiber is that it would allow the use of applications which are currently confined to your operating system. This isn't such a big shift, because most of the time when you "buy software" what you're really buying is a liscence to use the software (depending on your EULA, natch). So when speeds get high enough, you'll buy the lisence without any CDs, DVDs, or downloads, and whenever you want to use the program it's as fast as logging in to check your e-mail. But as stated above, once you're at that point "ownership" is entirely notional, and so you might as well just rent out Final Cut Pro from Apple instead of paying for it normally. This is more or less the de juris reality, which goes counter to how we actually think about application ownership (a traditional EULA specifies no termination date).

Here's the problem with Google Fiber: no matter what town Google chooses, the population won't be large enough for the application and media giants to build the necessary infrastructure. If Duluth receives the contract, will Apple build a new data center here specifically so that Duluthians will be able to download a four-minute high-def movie? Will they modify their existing data centers to push us high-def movies down whatever fiber their own or lease? Apple is perhaps a bad example, because they're in contention with Google, but the point stands; there's too little to gain by catering to a city the size of Duluth. Maybe I'm wrong, and the "last mile" problem is really all there is to it; maybe the huge rights holders will hop on the bandwagon right away. But I'm really curious as to whether this would actually change how we browse.

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