By Farhad Manjoo
PALO ALTO, Calif. — In January I traveled to Kansas City, Kan., to talk to people who have been using Google Fiber, the search company's effort to wire a large American city with 1-gigabit Internet lines. That's 100 times faster than the average American home broadband speed, and it's not even that expensive. Google will sell you a gigabit line for $70 a month, TV service and Internet for $120, and it will provide free Internet service at a respectable 5 Mbps to anyone who pays a one-time $300 installation fee. (By comparison, in Chattanooga, Tenn., where the local power utility recently launched gigabit service, the fastest tier goes for $350 per month.)
Everyone I spoke to in Kansas City — local officials, businesspeople, aspiring startup entrepreneurs, and ordinary residents — was thrilled that Google had blessed the area with superfast Internet. As I argued this week, though, there was just one problem: Nobody knew what to do with 1-Gb broadband. Even the most far-reaching ideas didn't begin to utilize all that bandwidth.
This should not have surprised me because providing cheap gigabit Internet to a few hundred thousand people in one city, while awesome for them, isn't very useful on a macro scale. For ultra-high-speed Internet to deliver on its boosters' promises, we'll have to see lots of developers create apps that require huge bandwidth. That will only happen when a critical mass of people — which likely means a few million, at least — get access to gigabit broadband.
It's obvious how Google would benefit after we hit that critical mass. The search company's research (and that of other Web companies) proves that when you give people faster Internet service, they use the Internet more often. And when people use the Internet more, Google makes more money. Some of Google's biggest products — YouTube, Android, Google+ Hangouts — are only possible because the world moved from dial-up Internet to broadband. Google's future prosperity likely depends on the next big shift, from 5 Mbps broadband (the American average) to gigabit service. Yet widespread gigabit broadband is not inevitable. Compared to most developed countries, American Internet lines are slower, more expensive, and cover less of the country. And unlike the increasing speed of microprocessors and the falling cost of storage, American broadband hasn't been improving at a regular, dependable rate.