When Google Becomes Pay-to-Play

By Ben Charny  |  Posted 2006-06-12

Imagine paying to use Google search.

The notion is deservedly absurd right now. But that landmark day may come, and it may be traced to present-day legislative and legal wrangling over how neutral the Internet is to be.

The ongoing net neutrality fight, in U.S. courts, the Senate and Congress, is over whether companies that own the networks delivering Internet access have any say as to what goes over the pipes. To a large degree, they really don't.

Should the likes of AT&T and Verizon Communications have their way, any network owner would be able to, say, create a kind of commuter lane guaranteeing the likes of Google a speedy delivery of its features.

That would mean a new expense for Google, Yahoo, AOL and lots of other Internet firms, which will surely pay up in order to remain competitive.

Eventually, the expense could become so burdensome, the folks in Mountain View, Calif., and elsewhere would be forced to pass on some, or all, of it to customers.

There are a lot of factors at work that could steer the future in any number of different directions, so there's no guarantee anyone will ever have to pay to use Google.

Yet there's an argument to be made that a day could come when the Google bill goes in the mail, or you'll be Googling per hour at wireless Internet hot spots, and cable operators add $5-a-month unlimited Googling to their steeply discounted quintuple play of services.

Just what would it be like to subscribe to Google? Given Google's ethos, it's a safe bet the experience will be painless, and have a certain Quakerish-look to it.

The biggest unknown in all this involves how much network owners would charge the likes of Google, so the degree of possible financial burden is a mystery.

For argument's sake, say Google has to pay Comcast a penny a search. That translates to a fee, just to Comcast, of about $5 million a month. There are a dozen or so major Internet providers in the United States alone, and scores, if not hundreds, worldwide.

So the price of a speedy Internet delivery in the United States for Google and Yahoo, the two major search engines, would amount to an annual fee in the hundreds of millions of dollars. That's a burden, even for these two revenue machines.

History provides examples of the same present-day forces at Google's heels shifting other technology industries from being largely free to coming with strings attached.

One such industry is Internet telephony. In the wake of each courtroom and legislative loss, many providers were forced to have customers foot the bill to meet the expenses of abiding by new rules and regulations.

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