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Google's new broadband service: a bane or boon to Hollywood?

February 10, 2010 |  5:50 pm

ValentiJack Valenti, the longtime MPAA chief executive who died in 2007, was fond of telling scary stories to policymakers. Not campfire tales but dystopian visions of a piracy-riddled future. A favorite target of his was Internet2, a considerably faster version of the Net that a consortium of universities is using to develop new networking applications. In one experiment, Valenti told a Senate committee in 2003, more than a DVD's worth of data was transmitted halfway around the world via Internet2 in less than a minute. "What is experiment today will be commonplace in the community three to four years from now. Which means that the glorious enticement of free and easy uploading and downloading movies, with little risk, will be far more intense than it is now," Valenti intoned.

His timetable was off, but at least part of his prediction is finally coming true. Google announced plans Wednesday to deploy an ultra-high-speed Internet access service to as many as half a million people. Many details, including where and when, remain to be determined. But the speed has already been set: 1 Gbps, or 200 times as fast as my current AT&T DSL line. In fact, Google's service would reportedly be more than 20 times as fast as the speediest broadband service available in the U.S. today.

Alas, Google is building the network mainly as a science project, and it may be limited to just one community. Nevertheless, I wouldn't be surprised to hear the MPAA's interim chief executive, Bob Pisano, pointing to the Google service as the new boogeyman. At that speed, Google estimated, users will be able to download a high-definition movie in "less than five minutes." But such a breakthrough in bandwidth, if spread throughout the U.S., would also present tremendous opportunities for legitimate online movie businesses.

The potential benefits go well beyond a vast improvement in picture quality for streaming video and the virtual elimination of waiting time for downloads. They also include a cheaper distribution pipeline for content, which would be a boon to independent studios and filmmakers, and enough capacity to stream exotic and immersive sorts of content, such as 3D video or material that relies on multiple, simultaneous high-definition feeds.

It's hard to predict the new services and forms of entertainment that would emerge from such a huge leap in bandwidth. The one certainty, though, is that tech companies and venture capitalists will climb over themselves developing businesses and products that can exploit it. And many of those entrepreneurs will be begging the studios to partner with them in new efforts to make money off of movies online. 

So the entertainment industry can stick with Valenti's fearful view of the future, or it can seize Google's experiment as a chance to test new ways to delight consumers and compete with online bootleggers. Yes, higher speeds can make life easier for illegal downloaders. But they can also help legitimate operators offer more experiences that pirates can't match.

Photo: Former MPAA chief Jack Valenti testifying on Capitol Hill in 2005. Credit: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

-- Jon Healey

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