From sending solar-powered balloons into the stratosphere to offering free Wi-Fi in parks, Google is quietly spending hundreds of millions of dollars on nascent Internet services that may one day challenge the telecom and cable companies.
In recent months, Google has announced plans to bring free wireless Internet access to 7,000 Starbucks cafes across America, eventually displacing AT&T; it has asked US regulators for broader access to wireless airwaves; and it has launched 30 solar-powered balloons over the South Pacific ocean, designed to beam the Internet to remote regions.
Then there is Google Fiber, the high-speed cable TV and Internet service that was introduced in Kansas City late last year and that will be expanded soon to Austin and Provo, Utah. Fiber delivers Internet speeds at 1 gigabit per second, as much as 100 times faster than the average US network.
Google is happy with customer responses in Kansas so far and may roll Google Fiber out to a few more US cities, according to several people close to the project.
"Fiber is considered the golden child right now within Google because of its disruptive nature and the applause that they get from the communities using it," said a former member of Google Access, a group headed by vice-president Milo Medin, who drives the company's Internet access projects.
Medin, a networking industry veteran who founded the seminal @Home cable broadband network in the 1990s, leads a few hundred employees. The group operates autonomously with its own engineering, finance and marketing units, according to the source.
As Google delivers more music, videos and other content to mobile devices, it has become increasingly invested in ensuring it gets the bandwidth it needs. Web access projects like Fiber could help Google grow revenues beyond its maturing search business, and give it more insight into consumers' online habits, crucial to making ads more effective.