Google is a behemoth of an organization. Most everyone is familiar with its search engine (to the point where “Google” is a now a verb), and of the top 25 most-visited web sites in the world 6 are Google-branded, including YouTube. The company makes much of its money by selling targeted advertisements through its AdWords service, and has been wildly successful doing so. But Google has been busy with some interesting projects that fall outside its traditional role as search engine. One in particular should be of interest to sociologists: Google Fiber, a fiber-optic based Internet service very different from current offerings.
By some measures, the United States is an incredibly wired nation. One way to discern this is the number of devices connected to the internet. Since each device connected to the internet gets a unique address, called an IP (internet protocol) address, the number of IP addresses assigned within an area, say the United States, is a measure of how many devices are connected to the internet. The tech savvy among you will note this measure is far from perfect since multiple devices can share an IP address (e.g., two computers sharing the same wireless router), and you would be right. Nevertheless, the United States accounts for 146 million of 666 million total IP addresses worldwide – nearly 22%.
Yet within the United States, broadband Internet is unavailable to 19 million Americans, predominantly those in rural areas. The FCC has a fascinating map that overlays access to broadband Internet over census data (population and income). Further, the FCC notes that even where high speed internet is available, 100 million people lack access. Those most disproportionately represented are from lower-income households, have less formal education, and identify themselves as non-white. Couple all of this with the fact that broadband speeds in the US are relatively slow relative to the rest of the developed world and we are left with an interesting problem: Our Internet is slow, expensive, and access to it is stratified by race, class, and geographic location.
So what does all of this have to do with Google? It’s Google Fiber iscurrently a very small project available only in parts of Kansas City (Missouri and Kansas), yet it offers Internet speeds that are orders of magnitude faster than most current technologies (up to 100 times faster, they claim) at prices similar to current ISPs. Moreover, they also offer a free internet plan with no monthly fee, and a relatively low ($300) one-time installation fee. Scholars interested in urban sociology, organizations, or technology should watch what is going on in Kansas City.
Because of Google’s tremendous influence in the technology industry and their ability to subsidize the startup costs of fiber-optic internet, Google is able to force the hand of other ISPs. In an industry that is notoriously homogeneous and isomorphic – and typically lacks competition – Google may very well force other providers to adapt their business models. This may be in terms of price (remember, American internet is expensive) or technology (our internet is also slow). Further, and in large part because of local grassroots efforts (see this excellent article over at Wired), high-speed internet will be made available in lower-income neighborhoods as well. This is especially important considering the lowest tier of service is free of charge, and Google is wiring local schools for free as well.
The incredible opportunity here is that Google Fiber is an experiment at the neighborhood and eventually city level. My goal here is not to sing Google’s praises, but rather indicate that this is an incredibly rare opportunity. Initiatives like this happen infrequently – where in a very short time span entire neighborhoods experience rapid technological change. While there is certainly a lot of scholarly discussion to be had about what, exactly, the impact of technology and internet access are on social life, Kansas City would be an ideal place to start looking for answers.