Google And Facebook Rewire The Internet As FCC Dithers
Giant tech companies are a lot like submarines. They glide into new areas as quietly as possible, saying nothing to the public. But every now and then, interesting bubbles make it to the surface – in the form of odd new job openings that appear in the careers corner of their websites. The latest case in point: what Google and Facebook are cooking up as they rewire the Internet.
In their earliest years, Google and Facebook tolerated the same Internet architecture that suffices for all the rest of us. But as Google and Facebook got bigger, they began to develop their own proprietary workarounds — so they could get unimaginably big volumes of data to individual users as quickly, reliably and cheaply as possible.
Think of Henry Ford, in the 1920s, building his own steel mills and buying up his own iron-ore reserves, so that he could achieve fuller control of everything needed to make his cars. For the Internet’s biggest content companies, the modern-day version of controlling the whole value chain involves creating an Internet backbone of sorts, installing thousands of servers in locations closer to customers, and, in Google’s case, rolling out direct-to-customers Internet service.
Take a close look at the language in this Google job ad for an IP (Internet Protocol) Architect. Google begins by noting: “We oversee the web’s largest IP backbone … A huge amount of global Internet traffic depends on us, and on the technical masterminds who keep us running.” Now Google is looking for someone to “take responsibility for the analysis, definition, and continued development of the end-to-end IP Architecture for Google.”
Or consider this job ad for City Managers to help guide the roll-out of Google Fiber, the Mountain View, Calif., company’s own customer-Internet service. As Google explains, “Your job will be to support our local outreach to city and state government, utilities, businesses, and organizations. Since our go-to-market strategy is grassroots focused and dependent on joint programs and events with local partners, your role is integral to the overall business of Google Fiber.”
Facebook, meanwhile, is looking for a Network Planner to join its edge planning and procurement team. (Edge is the standard term in Internet architecture for content providers that, at least in the old days, sat on the “edge” of networks built by other entities.) Read the job description carefully, and you’ll see that Facebook’s ambitions involve much more than being just a minor dot on the edge of someone else’s canvas.
Quoting from Facebook’s ad, whoever gets the job will be expected to “define and provide business justification for new or expansion of existing Points of Presence (PoPs) and evolving Edge architecture.” Or, if you prefer, “assist product development of multiple Content Distribution platforms in collaboration with Facebook Infrastructure teams and ISPs (Internet service providers) around the globe.”
Right now, Google and Facebook are focused mostly on making the Internet work better for their own services. But it wouldn’t surprise me if, a few years from now, one or both companies aggressively marketed their Internet-infrastructure expertise to others, for a price. The obvious comparison here is Amazon Web Services, which came into being in 2003, when Amazon decided that many of its own web and storage tools could be repackaged on a pay-as-you-go basis to other companies. AWS has grown into a multi-billion-dollar. cloud-based business with many thousands of customers.
Smaller companies that want to piggyback on Google’s traffic-handling expertise can already do so, to some extent, via the Google App Engine. But as Google and Facebook, in effect, build the world’s best fast lanes, there’s room to turn such modest initiatives into something much bigger, on terms that make sense to all parties.
Are such developments and possibilities part of the current public debate about Internet policy? Not really. Instead, everyone seems focused on a few slogans — such as net neutrality and open Internet — that ultimately translate into ways of restraining those dastardly cable and phone giants that provide most people with their connectivity. There’s no end of reasons to be annoyed at the ISPs, going back to various misdeeds in 2004 and 2008. But as Wired magazine’s Robert McMillan pointed out in an astute piece this summer, a lot of the rhetoric associated with net neutrality doesn’t align with the way that the current Internet works.
Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has been struggling to come up with new Internet regulations that sound a bit tougher on ISPs, without choking off possible innovation down the road. That’s tricky, nuanced territory, and Wheeler has ended up without any public support for his latest ideas. President Barack Obama scored some political points earlier in November by declaring himself to be a net-neutrality hardliner. But as a practical matter, the FCC’s ability to get anything accomplished appears to have evaporated. About all the agency can do is dither.
Articles from Bloomberg, Re/Code and others have expressed surprise that Google and Facebook are saying almost nothing about net neutrality these days. Is that really so surprising? While everyone else is shouting about last decade’s problems, the big guys are quietly creating the next decade’s solutions.