Google supports net neutrality, but not for itself

Zack Christenson Research Fellow, American Consumer Institute
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Last month, Google made a big announcement of a new service that they’ll be offering. Known as Google Fiber, it is a consumer broadband service that promises Internet speeds of up to 100 times faster than current consumer Internet speeds. The new service will also offer cable service, giving subscribers a full cable line-up in addition to their Internet service.

To rollout the service, Google selected a single community as a testing ground—residents of Kansas City, MO will be the first to have a chance to use the new Google Fiber service.

The service is comparatively priced with other Internet and cable providers, with prices set at $120/month for Internet and cable, or $70/month for just Internet. With this announcement, Google moves into becoming a service provider to compete with the likes of Comcast or Time Warner, while being a content distributor through its many business units, including Google, YouTube or its other services.

At first glance, this sounds like a great deal for consumers in Kansas City. Here we have a large company coming into their community to roll out the next generation of Internet connectivity, with speeds that will allow them to download songs in seconds or entire movies in mere minutes.

Of course, we should welcome any new advancement in how we connect to the Internet. With the Internet being worth an estimated $8 trillion in economic output, a new model for building out broadband infrastructure is very important, even if it is an experiment from the search giant.

Although there’s a lot to celebrate, we should be weary of the deal that Google struck with Kansas City and the precedent it could set for future public-private broadband partnerships. An exploration of the agreement shows that Google is entering the market on an uneven playing field from that of its competitors. Among other benefits, Kansas City promised free access to government facilities and rights of way, no fees and fast tracked permitting, and a promise to devote staff solely to cooperating with Google’s business efforts.

These are benefits that aren’t being extended to Google’s competitors, like Comcast or Time Warner, creating an uncompetitive landscape. And doubly troubling is the confidentiality agreement that was entered into by both parties. The agreement states that no financial information of correspondence can be divulged by either party to the agreement. So public resources and staff are being devoted to this business deal, but none of the financial terms are being divulged to the taxpayers?

How do we know if disadvantaged markets and citizens are being served first? Could Google provide city executives with free broadband services and not disclose it? The lack of transparency and accountability should worry any consumer concerned with government accountability and fiscal responsibility.

It’s also interesting to note that Google has decided not to open their network to competitors. This is a backtrack from a previous promise to keep their network open. It’s also ironic, given Google’s vociferous support of net neutrality, that Google wouldn’t find the value in open networks that its evangelized in the past. Apparently, net neutrality is good for Google’s competitors, but not Google itself.

If history is any indication, we should be weary of public-private broadband partnerships and should demand close examination of the deals. Municipal Wi-Fi projects have always been poor financial investments for communities, as we’ve detailed in the past.  While this may not be the same situation, it should still serve as a warning to take a critical look at broadband agreements between governments and private entities. This is no different.

Zack Christenson is a digital tech policy writer for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research institute.  For more information, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org.