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Google is trying to shame Comcast into running its network better

David L. Cohen, Executive Vice President of Comcast, talks with aides prior to the start of a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the proposed merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast, on Capitol Hill, May 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.
David L. Cohen, Executive Vice President of Comcast, talks with aides prior to the start of a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the proposed merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast, on Capitol Hill, May 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

new post on the Google Fiber blog describes how Google ensures customers using its Kansas City broadband service don't experience congestion when they're watching high-bandwidth content such as online video.

"We have also worked with services like Netflix so that they can ‘colocate’ their equipment in our Fiber facilities," writes Google'ss Jeffrey Burgan. "We give companies like Netflix and Akamai free access to space and power in our facilities and they provide their own content servers."

Why would Google give companies free access to its network? Normally, when a customer downloads a Netflix video, it has to be transmitted hundreds or even thousands of miles from a Netflix server somewhere on the internet. That's not just expensive for Netflix, it's also expensive for Google, which bears part of the cost of the long-distance network connection. It's also worse for consumers, since there's a higher chance that the data will experience congestion somewhere between the Netflix server and the user's TV.

So allowing big service providers like Netflix to co-locate their servers inside Google's Kansas City network is a win-win for everyone. Google and the content provider both save money on network infrastructure. And consumers get faster, more reliable service.

Of course, Google's post wasn't an idle bit of network management advice. While the word "Comcast" never appears in the post, the post is a pointed commentary on the behavior of the nation's largest broadband providers. Because Comcast and some other large ISPs have been demanding — and getting — payments to co-locate their content companies' servers inside their networks. Comcast has argued that it would be unfair for Comcast to have to bear the entire cost of carrying traffic to consumers.

Google is demonstrating by example that there's another way to think about things. In Google's view, better connectivity is better for everyone and the costs of hosting servers on-site are relatively small. So it proactively agrees to peering and co-location requests, which do save money compared to an alternative where the content is transmitted over long-distance internet links. Rather than using co-location as a revenue source, Google sees it as an opportunity to make its customers' experience as good as possible while simultaneously reducing its own costs.

Comcast's more hard-nosed approach can lead to a low quality experience for customers. In the last few months of 2013, Comcast allowed the speed of Netflix connections to decline for months because Netflix and long-distance internet providers carrying Netflix content wouldn't pay Comcast to deliver the traffic.

Of course, Google has a good reason to take Netflix's side in this kind of dispute. While Google is wearing an ISP hat in Kansas City, it's also one of the nation's largest content providers with services such as YouTube. So Google has a strong interest in making the norms of internet peering as friendly as possible to content providers.

But ultimately, Google's proactive attitude toward network quality is more customer-friendly than Comcast's. When an ISP takes a hard line in negotiations with content providers, customers often suffer from congested network connections. Customers benefit when ISPs make preventing congestion their top network-management priority.