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Austin Is Latest Test Bed For Google's High-Speed Experiment

Matthew Marcus works at his desk in the basement of Kansas City Startup Village in Kansas City, Kan., in January. The village houses several startup companies and takes advantage of the high-speed Internet. Google announced on Tuesday it would be installing its Google Fiber network in Austin, Texas, next. (AP)

Google announced Tuesday that its Google Fiber project would be hitting Austin, Texas, next. The company says Austin, famous for its South by Southwest festival, is a "mecca for creativity and entrepreneurialism, with thriving artistic and tech communities."

Google Fiber is the tech giant's blazing fast Internet service, with current rates at 1 Gpbs, about 100 times faster than your typical cable broadband Internet service. It debuted in Kansas City in 2012.

So why might we want a connection that fast?

The most obvious answer, reports NPR tech correspondent Steve Henn on All Things Considered, is that services we already use will run faster — like streaming movies and online gaming.

But Google's real argument, Henn says, is more far-reaching.

"[Google's argument] is that if you connect American homes to the Internet at these gigabit speeds, all kinds of Internet services and business that right now are basically impossible become possible," he says.

It's still unclear what Google's ultimate goal is with Google Fiber, Henn says, whether the company wants to become an Internet service provider or if this is simply an experiment.

"But one thing is clear," he says, "unlike Comcast or Time Warner, when Google hooks up a home to fiber it's not just going to be making money on monthly fees.

"Strategically, Google is perfectly positioned to use these high-speed connections to make all sorts of sophisticated software and services available online for free and support them with ads."

This will put Google in direct competition with other Internet providers, so much so that AT&T also announced on Tuesday that it would be creating a 1 Gbps fiber-optic network in Austin as well.

But Google has a long way to go. TechCrunch reports that it would cost the company an estimated $11 billion to roll out the network and TV service to 20 million more homes.

Kansas City's Year With Fiber

In March of 2011, Google announced that Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., had been selected as the first areas where it would install its fiber network.

After all is said and done, Google is expected to spend about $94 million for the Kansas City project to connect roughly 149,000 homes to the high-speed network. But KCUR's Sylvia Maria Gross reports on All Things Considered that the rollout there has been slow going.

So far, only 3,000 to 4,000 people are connected, and it's taken about a year longer than expected to get those customers up and running. Local governments and businesses are still trying to figure out how the technology could transform sectors like education, health care and the arts.

Aaron Deacon, managing director for KC Digital Drive, a community-driven effort created to think of ways to take advantage of the service, says it's not really about the technology but defining goals for the future.

"Having the technology in place forces people to really focus, and sort of ... recalibrate and say, 'OK, the future is a little closer than maybe we thought it was,' " Deacon says.

Deacon says Google Fiber has attracted funding for business incubators and other digital ventures, like Code for America, which helps local governments engage with citizens online. One way Google Fiber is already making a difference is in the marketplace; other cable operators are offering all sorts of deals for conventional broadband.

Google's pricing is currently seen as a little expensive; $70 a month for Internet or $120 a month to include the Google TV service.

Michael Liimatta, who heads the nonprofit Connecting for Good, aimed at bridging the digital divide, says he's disappointed that Google Fiber is only coming to neighborhoods where enough residents sign up, leaving out the poorest communities. Originally, Google had said it would help bring its high-speed Internet to those who don't have access. Still, Liimatta credits Google with starting the conversation.

"Even if Google is not necessarily the vehicle for achieving a lot of this stuff, they certainly are to be praised for getting us to be thinking about a lot of this," he says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Earlier today, Google announced it will start deploying Google Fiber in Austin, Texas. It's a high speed, very high speed, Internet network. The plans for this began almost three years ago when Google announced it would build a network in just one lucky American city. In less than two months, 1,100 communities applied. Kansas City won the prize and now that the network has been deployed there, Google is moving on to Austin.

In a few minutes, we'll hear how Google Fiber has worked out in Kansas City, but first, for more on what Google's trying to do, we're joined by NPR's technology correspondent, Steve Henn. Hey there, Steve.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Hi.

CORNISH: So first things first, just how fast is Google Fiber?

HENN: Well, it's 100 times faster than a typical cable Internet connection. So I thought one way to demonstrate this would be with my voice. If you think of my voice right now as the speed of your cable connection, this would be 10 times faster. And now, this is 100 times faster. That tiny burst of static actually contained everything I just said up 'til now just sped up 100 times.

CORNISH: OK. But why would anyone actually need an Internet connection to be that fast? And how much would it cost?

HENN: Well, Google says it will cost about as much as a cable connection does today. And the most obvious reason people might want this is it'll make services we already use much better. Right now, a cable Internet connection lets you stream a movie online. But say, if two people in your house want to watch two different movies at the same time, you'll probably have a problem.

A fiber connection's big enough to stream 10 movies at once. In fact, those movies download more quickly than you can play them, so there shouldn't be any buffering interruptions or glitches. But Google's real argument here - and one it's been making for years actually - is that if you connect American homes and businesses to the Internet at these gigabit speeds, all kinds of new Internet services and businesses which right now are basically impossible suddenly become possible.

CORNISH: Like what? What kind of businesses are we talking about?

HENN: Well, I'll give you one example. Right now, I'm working on a radio story and I'm editing all the sound together here on my PC. I own the PC and I own some sophisticated sound editing software. But if we had a fiber connection, all of that work could take place on servers. I could actually do the editing on a tablet or a smartphone and I could rent the sound editing software instead of buying it or maybe it would even be free. And when I used it, I'd just see some ads and that ad revenue would support it. I think this is sort of the vision Google has here; moving the hard work of computing into the cloud and letting people access that with devices in their pockets.

CORNISH: So it's a faster connection to the cloud, is what we're talking about.

HENN: A much, much faster connection to the cloud.

CORNISH: What's Google's ultimate goal here? I mean, do they want to get into the business of becoming an Internet service provider?

HENN: Well, clearly, Google would love to see these kinds of high-speed connections in every home across the country. The question is whether or not Google actually wants to be the company that puts those connections in, and Google's been a little bit coy about this. Executives go back and forth between describing Google Fiber as a new business or a bit of an experiment.

But one thing's clear. Unlike, say, Comcast or Time Warner, when Google hooks up a home to a fiber connection, it's not just going to be making money on the monthly fees. Strategically, Google's perfectly positioned to use these high-speed connections to make all sorts of sophisticated software and services available online for free and then support them with ads.

If you think about that, it would Google a competitive advantage against cable companies because it doesn't need to make its profit from the connections alone. And it also lets Google compete against companies like Microsoft, which right now sells software that's installed on PCs, or sell it as a service that comes with a monthly bill. So, you know, as is typically the case, I think Google's ambitions here are very, very big.

CORNISH: One more thing, Steve. Why Austin?

HENN: Well, Austin has an entrepreneurial community. It's the home of the South By Southwest Conference. I think they're hoping that when they deploy Google Fiber across that city, that entrepreneurs will do amazing and exciting things with it and will make lots of other cities excited about getting it.

CORNISH: Steve, thank you.

HENN: Thank you.

CORNISH: Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent and already there are signs of competition in Austin. Today, AT&T announced that it is prepared to build its own fiber optic network in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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