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Google to government: Let us build a faster Net

The leader of Google's effort to bring gigabit Internet access to Kansas City says governments need to make it easier for private companies to build out broadband.

Kevin Lo, general manager of access at Google
Kevin Lo, general manager of access at Google, speaking at Broadband World Forum 2011. Stephen Shankland/CNET

LA DEFENSE, France--Governments are eager for the benefits of high-speed Internet access, but if they really want it, they need to reform regulations to help those who would build it, a Google executive argued today.

"Regulation can get in the way of innovation," said Kevin Lo, who as general manager of access oversees the Google Fiber project to bring extremely fast Net access to Kansas City in Missouri and Kansas. "Regulations tied to physical infrastructure sometimes defer the investment altogether," he said in a speech at Broadband World Forum here.

Tension between private-sector ambitions and public-sector constraints have endured for centuries, but Google--an Internet juggernaut that tries to move at startup speeds--feels it particularly acutely. Much of the company's ambitions are held back by broadband access that's too slow or missing altogether.

"We're about moving the Web forward," Lo said. "We have product managers who are very frustrated. They have apps that don't work because they don't have the speeds."

Lo called for three specific reforms: ease access to public rights-of-way where fiber-optic cables can be laid; ease access to utility poles; and enable special service districts to free sections of municipalities from zoning restrictions. He also said the Kansas City's "very pro-business" attitude was key to its selection for the Google Fiber project. "They demonstrated they could work at Google speeds," he said.

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Google has begun building its free high-speed network, which promises speeds of 1 gigabit per second for both downloads and uploads using fiber-optic lines to the home. "We believe the uplink capacity is the real game-changer here," Lo said. "We're going to light up our customers in the first half of next year."

Today's Internet connections typically enable much higher download speeds that upload speeds, a design that helps with applications such as watching streaming video off the Net but makes it harder for tasks such as uploading photos or holding videoconferences.

The project began in Kansas City, Kan., but expanded to the nearby Kansas City, Mo., shortly afterward. In an interview, Lo declined to state how many of the cities' residents would receive the service, but said it's designed so that it can reach all of them.

The show's audience--many of them Internet service providers keenly interested in the fact that Google is pushing a free service into the heart of their business--tried with little success to extract financial details about Google's project. Lo wouldn't comment on how much it costs to bring service to each household or on how fast it expects a return on its investment.

But he did say it will make Google money one way or another and that the company can afford to make expensive investments in infrastructure.

"This is a business for us. We expect to make money. We don't expect to lose money," he said. "Google is not a cash-starved entity... This thing has to make economic sense, and it does."

The Google Fiber project began in 2009 as Google employees contemplated the U.S. government's attempt to improve broadband. In a late 2009 discussion, co-founder Sergey Brin asked, "If we think this idea is so important, why are we waiting for the government to build it? Why aren't we building it ourselves?" Google announced Google Fiber in 2010.

Google is "starting" Google Fiber in Kansas City, but it's not clear to what extent it'll go beyond that area. In the interview, Lo refused to offer any further details of its expansion plans.

Even though the company is confident the project makes business sense, it's not clear on what exactly gigabit Internet will bring to households beyond some ideas such as videoconferencing.

"We have no idea why you need a gigabit today," Lo said. "When we all had dialup connections 15 years ago, you could not have imagined watching video like you do today. It's not about doing e-mail faster, it's about doing those new things that you don't do today."