Google is putting pressure on regulators and service providers to think big in terms of fibre-optic networks that can deliver 1 gigabit per second. Google is planning to build and test ultra high-speed broadband networks at one or more trial locations in the United States. Google aims to offer the service at a competitive price to up to half a million people. The aim is not to enter the internet service provider business, for the moment. The goal, says Google, is to see what developers and users can do with high-speed networks.

Google is urging people to “Think big with a gig”. Its main motive appears to be to maintain network neutrality and put pressure on existing providers to increase speeds. The announcement comes as federal regulators are close to completing a national broadband plan.

Google suggests that in the same way the transition from dial-up to broadband made possible the emergence of online video and countless other applications, ultra high-speed bandwidth will drive more innovation — in high-definition video, remote data storage, real-time multimedia collaboration, and others that we cannot yet imagine.

Google will operate an open access network, giving users the choice of multiple service providers. The company is inviting municipalities to submit responses to help it decide where to build the network and it will announce the selected sites later in 2010.

In an opinion piece in The Washington Post Google chairman and chief executive Eric Schmidt wrote of erasing the “innovation deficit”. He said it was no possible to rely on the top-down approach when big investments in the military or space span off to the wider economy. He suggested: “The ideas that power our next generation of growth are just as likely to originate in a coffee shop as in the laboratory of a big corporation.”

In our 20 practical predictions for the next 10 years in television, informitv talks of network connections of 1Gbps or more in urban areas. Many people have asked what such speeds would be used for. That is probably the wrong question. The reason is what we call technological inevitability. Such speeds are already possible today. You may already have a laptop with a 1Gbs network connector. There are already fibre networks that can deliver such speeds to the home. It seems inevitable that this will become more widespread and that applications will emerge to make use of such connectivity.

At such speeds you could download a full high-definition movie at the same quality as a Blu-ray disc in about five minutes. That assumes, of course, that the servers and your local network, storage and processing capacity can keep up.

In practice, it means that delivering high-definition television and video over such networks will become commonplace. That will have a similar effect on traditional television and video distribution as the internet has had on music and print publishing. It will also no doubt deliver economic benefits that we have yet to conceive.

So what is in it for Google to drive such developments? Google will benefit from improved connectivity by being able to deliver more sophisticated services, including video. It is in the interests of Google to promote open access networks, rather than to allow incumbent providers to manage and prioritise traffic, potentially in favour of their own services. Advanced applications will also require symmetrical connections that are as fast sending data upstream and receiving downstream.

With an ultra high-speed internet protocol network, Google will be able to deliver interactive video advertising using the technology of the web, rather than the legacy infrastructure of cable television plant that is currently used to deliver so-called high-speed internet access to most of America at an average rate of around 4Mbps.

Google is using its deep cash reserves and technical capabilities to step up the pressure on the administrative authorities and broadband service providers. By demonstrating that such connections can be provided at reasonable cost, Google will undermine the arguments of incumbents that it is uneconomic or that there is no consumer demand.

Comcast offers speeds of up to 50Mbps and will raise this to 100Mbps. Even Verizon, which already offers fibre network connections direct to the home, only offers a top speed of 50Mbps, which is still 20 times slower than the rates proposed by Google.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association reacted by saying that the cable industry has invested over $160 billion over the past decade or so to build a broadband infrastructure that reaches over 90% of homes in America.

The Federal Communications Commission responded more positively. “This significant trial will provide an American test bed for the next generation of innovative, high-speed Internet apps, devices and services,” said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski. “The FCC’s National Broadband Plan will build upon such private-sector initiatives and will include recommendations for facilitating and accelerating greater investment in broadband, creating jobs and increasing America’s global competitiveness.”

America ranks 15th in the world for internet access speed. To the surprise of many Americans, gigabit internet access is already available in other countries, such as Hong Kong.

Other countries, notably Australia, have announced ambitious plans to build a national broadband network based on fibre infrastructure, but they are still only talking in terms of 100Mbps.

In their infinite wisdom the powers that be in Britain have suggested that 2Mbps universal access is quite ambitious enough for the moment, although Virgin Media offers up to 50Mbps and is already experimenting with speeds of 200Mbps or more.