Coming soon to K.C.: Free Google broadband

Yes, it's far away in the middle of what East and West Coasters supposedly dismiss as "fly-over country." (Not that I actually know any of those people.) But as Rodgers and Hammerstein pointed out in song, everything was once up to date in Kansas City. Now, it promises to again get well ahead of the curve, thanks to Google's ambitious demonstration project: a regional fiber-optic network offering superfast broadband.

The debut is less than 40 days away, and there are some limits on how much the search giant is willing to expend. As its blog post last week pointed out, Google is carving the area into "fiberhoods," starting with Kansas City, Kansas, and then the larger Kansas City, Missouri. To gain connection to the high-speed network, each fiberhood will need a critical mass of preregistered subscribers. (What's a critical mass? It's unclear if there's a firm definition; some fiberhoods' goals are listed online at 10 percent and others at 25 percent.)

But Google's price list tells the real, disruptive story: three tiers, including one at the bottom that offers 5-megabit service for seven years in return for the $300 installation charge, paid up-front or over 12 months, $25 a month. That's right: the superhighway of the 21st century, essentially without tolls.

Here are some details from the Google fiber website:

  • High-speed broadband and TV. For $120/month, plus taxes and fees, Google offers "The Full Google Experience," with up to one gigabit upload and download speeds, "full channel TV lineup," two-year contract, and no data caps. Google is waiving the $300 installation charge, and including a Nexus 7 tablet and a one-terabyte hard drive. The pitch: "Experience the Internet like never before. Instant downloads. Crystal clear HDTV. And endless possibilities."
  • High-speed broadband alone. For $70/month plus taxes and fees, Google will offer "Gigabit Internet," with the same up-to-one-gigabit speed, no data caps, and the one-terabyte drive. The pitch: "You can do everything you love on the web at speeds 100 times faster than what most Americans get today." Here, too, Google is waiving the connection fee.
  • Broadband alone - free for seven years after paying $300, plus taxes and fees, to connect. This is the real disruption: If enough people in their fiberhoods sign up, Google will give them adequate broadband - by today's standards, at least - for next to nothing. Google says they'll get up to 5 megabits per second upstream and 1 megabit per second downstream, with no data caps and "free service guaranteed for at least 7 years." The pitch: "Future-proof your home with free internet at today's average speeds. You can upgrade to Fiber speeds anytime, with no additional equipment needed."

There are lots of questions about how all this will play out. One that many will ask is: Will 5-megabit service still seem adequate a few years from now? The answer is: Not for the seriously impatient, ot those who covet the latest enhancements in video. But for almost everything else imaginable today, it's plenty. Not surprisingly, Google is already pitching the option to upgrade. (I wouldn't count on Google's ever accelerating the free tier, but it's not inconceivable.)

If nothing else, this experiment will be fun to watch - except if you're a cable or telecom company that likes things just the way they are.