Google eyes how mobile devices will use city Wi-Fi

Google is working with mobile device vendors on how to take advantage of citywide Wi-Fi networks, an executive said Thursday.

Google has met with mobile gear vendors including Motorola and Sony to explore how their devices might be able to take advantage of municipal Wi-Fi networks, an executive of the search company said.

"We're doing everything we can to make this a playground for devices," said Christopher Sacca, principal in new business development at Google, referring to a network the company already operates in its home town of Mountain View, California. He spoke in a panel discussion on wireless technology Thursday evening at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

One device in Google's crosshairs is Sony's PSP game platform. "There's like five million of those in the U.S. now, they've all got Wi-Fi in them. We're trying to do what we can to make those devices able to log on to this network," Sacca said.

But hardware makers are also exploring ways to take advantage of VOIP (voice over IP), which could leave cellular operators and their per-minute billing out of the equation, he said.

"We're getting stuff shipped to us by everybody -- by Motorola, by Siemens, by Philips, by Sony, by Nintendo," Sacca said. Some of the devices are coming from behind-the-scenes development groups at those companies -- some of which are deeply involved in the traditional cell phone business. In some cases, "we're meeting with somebody, but it's behind the CEO's back," he said.

The possibility of residents accessing a Google-provided municipal network via Sony's popular PSP gaming platform is among Google's hopes as it seeks to build a bigger Wi-Fi network in nearby San Francisco that is free to both the city and users. The company is working through the city's RFP (Request for Proposal) process. There, as in Mountain View, Google is finding a number of political and technical hurdles, Sacca said.

"We're not politicians, and that's where we're dying here. We've been to city council meetings now, and it's a very uncomfortable zone for us," Sacca said.

Ten or more committees in San Francisco would need to approve plans for a Wi-Fi network, including an aesthetics committee to review the appearance of access points that would be installed on light poles, traffic lights and other locations, Sacca said. Another challenge is that those installation sites aren't all owned by the city but by several different entities, all of which Google needs to deal with, he said.

Another big issue is how to connect those access points -- 30 per square mile, by Sacca's estimate -- to high-capacity pipes to the Internet. Google is exploring ways to use wireless technology for those links, too, because almost all the fiber-optic cable in the city is owned by AT&T and Comcast, which offer Internet service themselves and haven't shown any signs of cooperating, Sacca said. Even San Francisco's famous fog is a challenge, Sacca said. It's persistent in some parts of the city, just where Google wants to use line-of-sight wireless backhaul links that could be slowed down by the impaired visibility.

But one of Google's biggest challenges is the same one some broadband providers have been howling about lately, Sacca said. After providing a high-speed Internet connection to its customers, Google could find some of them using bandwidth-hungry applications, such as streaming video or file-sharing, that hog the network's capacity.

In fact, that problem is more severe with a wireless broadband network like the one Google envisions than on a fiber, DSL (digital subscriber line) or cable network, which has much more bandwidth, Sacca said. But unlike some large carriers that are considering charging providers of Internet applications for high-priority treatment, Google would never do that, he said.

"We're in Washington, in congressmen's offices and in the office of the [Federal Communications Commission] chairman, saying 'We need 'Net neutrality. We can't have ... service providers saying what can and can't run on the network.' ... At the same time, we're building an ISP and we're confronting the reality of, 'Oh, man, people are going to run BitTorrent on this thing, aren't they?'" Sacca said.

Sacca provided some glimpses into how the citywide system would work. Google would provide a basic, free service of about 300K bps (bits per second), possibly offering higher quality services for a charge. The company would also let other Internet service providers resell services on the infrastructure, giving Google another revenue source.

By keeping track of which access point a user is connected to, Google will be able to locate users within two blocks for the purposes of sending them advertising for businesses nearby, Sacca said. Google would sell ads by postal code, potentially uncovering a new class of advertisers among small local businesses that don't buy space in other media today, he said. Google's localized ads would be a more efficient way for them to reach likely customers, according to Sacca.

Google's approach with this and other projects is to solve the "people problem" first -- in this case, giving people Internet access throughout the city -- and worry about money later, according to Sacca. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin gave Sacca's group a budget for the project with no preconceived ideas, he said. Once Google gets the network going, it will see what applications people use it for and how the business model shapes up, Sacca said.

"Highly targeted ads may be able to pay for these things," Sacca said.

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