Heres the question of the week about Google, the little "search engine" company thats morphed into a big interesting Internet company: Will the company go into the business of offering free wireless Internet access?
Boy, I sure hope so. And not just for the obvious "all about me" reasons.
A roll out of free Internet access would demonstrate in a number of different ways that living on the network is no Science Fiction fantasy. Anyone will be able to get on. At any time. And anyone will.
Its about time we accelerated the transition to the networked world. The distance between those who live on the net and those who think the Internet is just some sort of wacky version of what they already know—a TV set, a newspaper, a typewriter—needs to have a stake put through its heart.
Its responsible for all kinds of silly assumptions about how this countrys political, economic and social character have not changed. It allows people who know better to dismiss much of the innovation going online as noble but misguided efforts that make no economic sense.
That view—part of the more generally oblivious attitude that many have toward businesses (like Craigslist) being created on the Internet—has led to some particularly short-sighted policies.
The best examples of this are the approaches that both political parties have taken toward the outsourcing of U.S. jobs.
Pretty much everyone wants that issue to go away. In a networked world, its just beginning to affect how we work.
In the shorter term, Google Wi-Fi would also really mess with the heads of the various telecommunications industry lobbies in Washington, D.C. And it couldnt come at a better time, as those lobbies are warming up for the rewrite of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Now "mess with the heads" is not a technical term, although at Google thats no doubt how theyre thinking of this purported plan.
No, the Washington-speak would be something a bit more sterile involving words like "customer satisfaction," "incumbent providers" and "market stability." Someone might throw in the phrase "co-location" just for laughs.
But the bottom line is the same: The sudden, over-night, branded provision of free and almost unlimited access to the Internet would mean that telephone, cable, broadcast TV, film and music companies would have to come to grips—now!—with the fact that their hold on their customers is slipping and can easily be undone.
That makes the free Wi-Fi idea one very politically shrewd move on Googles part.
If Google does offer free Wi-Fi, it would show how much phone and cable companies count on their relationships with local or federal governments to keep their customers in line, and how that relationship is such a pivot point for these gatekeepers.
Thats not going to be lost on customers who are the people politicians call "voters." Like so much else, the Internet changes the relationship between company and customers.
On top of that, it allows customers to circumvent the various pitches coming at them—cell phones! Cable modems! DSL! EVOD!—and select what they want from the network that is the Internet.
Free Google Wi-Fi would add support to the arguments made by cities and towns that such access is a public safety and health issue.
It would also shore up arguments that Wi-Fi is both an economic development tool as well as a municipal money-saver.
It would be a potent demonstration of the power and flexibility of the Internet and lawmakers in Washington love demonstrations that reassure people that the future isnt really that scary.
Again, politically shrewd on Googles part.
In short, Googles offering free universal wireless access puts net users in charge. It pulls down a huge Gateway between sites like this one and readers like you.
That means more customers—more direct customers—for online services, more folks downloading music and more folks looking for video of their favorite TV shows. It also means more readers for sites like this one (and, full disclaimer, sites like the one I run here). And more folks doing more stuff online.
Thats all good for Google, of course. The company makes its money from advertising (which, disclaimer again, I buy for my site).
More people online means more stuff to sell and more people looking to buy. That translates to more ad revenue for Google. Its a pretty straightforward transaction and its one only a few companies can—or could—make.
Will they do it? Lets hope so.
eWEEK.com technology and politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.