Google has a reputation for being somewhat flighty with its technological forays (you would be too if you were sitting atop a mountain of cash). Apps and services come and go. There's a self-driving car, a pair of futuristic glasses, a mobile operating system, tablets, a social network - all circling tenuously around the company's core mission of internet search.
Now there's another item on the list: Google Fiber. Announced 2011, Google Fiber went live in Kansas City, Missouri last week. The high-speed service offers users Internet access of 1,000 Mbps - both download and upload. That's roughly 100 times faster than most broadband connections available to consumers in the U.S.
Google is offering the service in several flavors. The most expensive is the $120 package, which includes the gigabit internet connection in addition to a pay TV package (and a Nexus 7 tablet). You can skip the TV offering and get the blazing gigabit Internet for $70 a month or pay a one-time fee of $300 and get free internet access at 5Mbps speeds.
Aside from an impressive digital video recorder with a 2TB hard drive and the ability to record eight shows simultaneously, the TV component of the Google Fiber is itself underwhelming - there's no ESPN, Disney, HBO, TNT or TBS. But that doesn't mean that Google Fiber can't shake up the TV industry.
There are two reasons to watch this space. First, due to Google Fiber's enormous bandwidth, high definition movies are no longer the over-sized load trying to barge down a crowded cyber highway. Streaming quality - and live broadcasts - could improve considerably over a gigabit fiber network as they'd require less compression (which tends to reduce video quality).
Second, Google isn't wed to the old business model that has delivered cable TV and internet access to consumer's homes. Whereas those services are threatening their users with caps and tiered pricing if they stream too much Netflix, Google could take a more relaxed attitude about various web video competitors - especially since Google-owned YouTube constitutes one of the emerging threats to traditional TV over managed networks. Rather than crowd out rival web services, Google has the bandwidth to embrace and promote them - the better to incentivize additional fiber subscribers.
The market for broadband - and pay TV services in general - is very limited in the U.S., when not downright monopolistic. Google introduces something critical: more competition. Google Fiber not only embarrasses the pokey speeds of any incumbent internet service provider, it erases the threat that bandwidth caps and tiered pricing regimes could strangle a consumer's appetite for Netflix or Hulu.
The big caveat, of course, is that Google Fiber can only be competitive in the places that have it and to date that is exactly one. Google will announce in September a rollout schedule for additional Google Fiber build outs but it's likely to be a slow process. The company's history of flirting with one business area only to dump it doesn't exactly inspire a ton of confidence that Google Fiber can scale to a national offering to challenge DirecTV or Comcast, either. The revolution, if it is to come, will be slow.
But if Google does make a go of it, the Hulus and the Netflixes of the world will almost certainly rejoice.