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Google says its fibre network experiment will reach between 50,000 and 500,000 people.

Google is launching experimental fibre broadband networks in several U.S. cities in an effort to push high-speed internet development.

The networks, which will be available to between 50,000 and 500,000 people "at a competitive price," will offer connection speeds up of up to one gigabit per second, or more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today, Google said.

"Our goal is to experiment with new ways to help make internet access better and faster for everyone," said product managers Minnie Ingersoll and James Kelly on the company's blog.

"Network providers are making real progress to expand and improve high-speed internet access, but there's still more to be done. We don't think we have all the answers — but through our trial, we hope to make a meaningful contribution to the shared goal of delivering faster and better internet for everyone."

Google said it will announce the targeted communities later this year after taking requests from state, county and city officials.

The company said the experiment is designed to show what's possible with ultra-fast internet speeds. Three-dimensional medical imaging in rural communities or nearly instantaneous high-definition video are just two possibilities, it said.

Google said it also wants to learn about deploying fibre, and it plans to share its networks so that other internet service providers can connect to it.

"We'll operate an 'open access' network, giving users the choice of multiple service providers," Ingersoll and Kelly wrote. "And consistent with our past advocacy, we'll manage our network in an open, non-discriminatory and transparent way."

Buying fibre for years

Google has been secretly amassing unused fibre capacity for years. The company has been a big buyer of this so-called "dark fibre," much of which was laid during the late 1990s, since the technology bubble burst. 

Industry analysts have maintained that Google was buying it largely to provide connectivity between its own data centres around the world. Stefan Beckert, an analyst at Telegeography in Washington, said no one knows just how much dark fibre Google owns, and where.

"It's not surprising that they have very large capacity requirements," he said. "What is surprising is that they're looking into the business of providing internet service. They're trying to show what can be done with fibre."

Google has been pushing for more open access to broadband networks, and has been critical of traditional telecommunications companies in the past for not investing in better networks, for some time. Several recent reports have found both the United States and Canada behind the rest of the world in terms of broadband speeds and prices.

Industry analysts agree that super-fast broadband networks are integral to a country's economic, social and cultural development.

University of Ottawa internet law professor Michael Geist said Google's move is potentially game changing. The fibre experiment will send a message to phone and cable companies that they're not the only internet service providers on the block.

"What Google is putting on the table here is so beyond what the typical North American consumer is used to. It could dramatically reshape the industry," he said.

Such an experiment will be unlikely in Canada, however. Google likely has dark fibre in Canada to serve its capacity needs here, but any attempt to provide telecommunications services would run into legal problems. Restrictions require any infrastructure-owning telecom service provider to be majority Canadian owned and controlled.

Jacob Glick, Google's policy counsel in Canada, said there weren't any reasons why the company couldn't try the fibre experiment here, if not for the ownership restrictions. "I don't see why not," he said.

Geist said Google's experiment is likely to add further pressure on the federal government to lift the foreign ownership restrictions.

"It will highlight just how far behind we are," he said.

Glick also said Google has no long-term plans to be an internet service providers. Industry analysts, including Telegeography's Beckert, said doing so would be "economic suicide."