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The promise and reality of Google Fiber

Jim Burress Aug 7, 2018

The promise and reality of Google Fiber

Jim Burress Aug 7, 2018

If smiling politicians were a barometer, the January 2015 press conference to trum­pet Google Fiber’s selection of Atlanta as its next fiber city could’ve been the region’s biggest announcement since the city landed the 1996 Olympics.

The mayors of eight other suburban cities glowed as then-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed spoke on their behalf.

“Today is one of the most important moments in the life of the Atlanta metropolitan region,” Reed gushed. “Abundant high-speed broadband access will make our economy stronger and make our community stronger.” (Reed, who is no longer Atlanta’s mayor, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

As Google Fiber’s director of marketing, Scott Levitan told the crowd: “Google Fiber will help put Atlanta on par with the fastest cities in the world, like Seoul, Tokyo and Zurich.” Levitan said in a few short months, hundreds of trucks would begin their descent on Atlanta streets. “[It] will take a while before everyone’s neighborhood is served,” Levitan warned, and suggested the process could last a “couple of years.” But no matter the timeline, he assured, “We’ll do our best to keep you informed along the way.”

Initially, a two-year timeframe looked rea­sonable. By summer, crews laying fiber-op­tic cable were busy demolishing sidewalks and closing streets to traffic — and, in the process, infuriating commuters and resi­dents alike.

Wired and waiting

“Up here on the ceiling,” Atlanta resident Jeffrey Welch said as he pointed at the crown molding of his second-floor condo near the city’s largest park, “there’s a [nearly] invisible cable.”

You’d needed to squint to see it, but there it was: fiber-optic cable, made of one sliver of glass about the diameter of a human hair.

Unlike most Atlantans, Welch has Google Fiber.

Kind of.

The wiring is there, but more than 18 months after Google technicians installed it — at a cost of $13,000 to the condo association for paying someone to oversee the crews as they worked in each of the 69 units, according to Welch — Google Fiber had yet to throw the switch.

It’s not because Atlanta has been unwelcoming. Municipalities across the metro area have made concessions to pave the way for Google Fiber, banking on the unquestioned benefits of being associated with the company’s name.

“It does come with a certain cachet,” College Park, Georgia, City Manager Terrence Moore said of the gigabit-speed service. “Frankly, it’s a benefit to us because we have the opportunity to market ourselves as a Google Fiber community.”

Moore said College Park officials sliced through much of the typical bureaucratic red tape inherent with applying for a city permit. That allowed Google Fiber to ramp up its planning and design phase and quickly begin construction, according to city officials.

“We’ve done everything humanly and organizationally possible to support Google Fiber in an effort to bring their products to the community,” Moore said.

By the end of January 2018, Google Fiber had met the city’s requirements for expanding into the northern sections of the town, according to William Moore, head of engineering for the city. He said just a few small steps remained before workers could begin deploying fiber and connecting customers. Google Fiber representatives needed only to sign an application and write a $250 check for each of the four required permits.

Easy enough.

But Google Fiber’s people never stopped by city hall to finish the process.

The continued, unexplained delays bother Michelle Suzette Jones, who never thought three years ago when she signed up for the service that she’d still be waiting for a Google Fiber truck to drop by.

Jones said she’s seen it all before.

“We get the short end of the stick here, so maybe it’s ingrained in me to be suspect,” Jones said of living in College Park. “When something says it’s coming down this way and then it suddenly doesn’t, [I have] to wonder, is it because [College Park is] browner? It’s poorer?”

Google Fiber hasn’t completely abandoned College Park. It does provide gigabit speeds to one address, which also happens to be the most expensive rental option inside the city line. It’s called The Pad on Harvard, and the year-old, $41 million development is the first new residential building of its kind in College Park in more than 40 years.

Google Fiber locates all of its transmission relay points — known as “fiber huts” — on public rights of way. Some are hidden; others are not, like this one that abuts the main thoroughfare in East Point, Georgia. Each hut has the potential to provide gigabit internet speeds to 20,000 or 30,000 customers. 

Rod Mullice led the development of The Pad on Harvard, aided by his background in transit-oriented construction projects. It’s because of that background he knew of thousands of miles of surplus, unused fiber-optic lines — known as dark fiber — running parallel to the city transit agency’s subway lines. All he needed was to sell the idea to Google Fiber.

“I pursued them aggressively,” Mullice said of lobbying the company. “Aggressively.”

It worked.

Mullice said The Pad’s residents have had nothing but positive experiences with Google Fiber, but he still questions how the com­pany has handled its commitment to the area.

“It doesn’t give me great joy,” he said of the fact his project is the only building with Google Fiber in town. “I want everybody to have it.”

The trouble with digital inclusion 

In the Kansas City region; Austin, Texas; and Provo, Utah, Google Fiber did something almost too good to be true. It handed out free internet (for up to seven years) to anyone willing to pay a one-time installation fee of $300. Sure, the gratis package was one-200th the speed of Google Fiber’s drool-inducing gigabit plan. But free is free.

By the time Google Fiber put out its shingle in Atlanta, it had dropped the on-the-house option in favor of a $50 (and much faster) monthly plan. But the company still planned to offer limited low- or no-cost service to certain residents. At least that’s how Terrence Moore, College Park’s city manager, said he understands it — although he admits Google Fiber has offered few details.

“I think when Google Fiber made those offers of having free monthly service, they probably were sincere,” said Georgia State University economist Bruce Seaman.

He said Google Fiber’s speedy service alone wouldn’t completely bridge Atlanta’s digital divide, no matter how many homes it wired. And despite missteps, Seaman said no one should be quick to single Google Fiber out.

“It’s hard to uniquely criticize Google Fiber when, of course, it is the broader issue for all providers.”

Unchecked power

Greg Fender was suspicious about Google Fiber’s entry into Atlanta early on. In his capacity as a consultant on rights-of-way issues, Fender knows most Georgia mayors and city managers on a first-name basis. He said he gets calls from them weekly, if not daily, as they seek advice with cable and telecommunications contracts.

When it became clear that Atlanta and a handful of surrounding cities were likely going to be the next Google Fiber recipients, Fender expected he’d soon be looking over contracts and advising local officials about what came next. That’s because all of Google Fiber’s distribution huts are in public parks or other public rights of way.

But no one sought him out. He said it’s the first time in his three-decade career that’s happened.

Fender wondered if city officials might be so excited about Google Fiber that they didn’t want to rock the boat. He also wondered if Google Fiber might have used its familiar name and brand power to convince officials to stay mum.

Whatever the backstory, Fender’s suspicion was right.

To move forward with discussions “concerning existing or future product development efforts,” Google Fiber required at least one local gov­ernment agency to sign a confidentiality statement that silenced it for three years.

Asked about the nondisclosure agreements, Google Fiber spokes­person Sunny Gettinger responded via email, “When we first start working with cities and partners, we do often enter into NDAs with them simply because of the amount of confidential and competitively sensitive information we share, especially in the early days of the project.”

Fender points to another high-profile company that’s using what he’s coined “the Google model” of doing business: Amazon. The retail behemoth’s strategy for choosing a location for its coveted second headquarters relies on city leaders offering up the best incentives — including softening regulations and easing protocol.

“I caution cities against doing that,” said Fender, adding that playing by those rules puts almost unchecked power in the hands of the private company, often at the expense of the city.

Google fiber’s loss = Google’s gain

Google Fiber has never given a definitive answer as to when it will complete its Atlanta rollout. A review of hundreds of emails, inter­nal memos and other correspondence shows Google Fiber was careful not to make such promises — even to top officials, and even as it expanded to new cities across the nation.

“We continue to see Fiber as a huge mar­ket opportunity,” said Ruth Porat, the chief financial officer of Google Fiber’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., on a call with investors in July 2016. When asked earlier this year about Google Fiber’s progress, Porat was more circumspect.

“We concluded that we would pause the pace of rollout … so that we could spend time on, ‘How do we really bring technology to bear in a more meaningful way?’” Porat said during a Q&A at the Morgan Stanley Technology Conference in San Francisco in February.

That pace is likely to pick up only when Google Fiber has “something that is substan­tive enough [in] value to justify accelerating the rollout again,” Porat added.

Analysts believe that “something” likely involves wireless data transmission.

More recently, the company has started to look at how it might shed its dependency on fiber-optic cables altogether along the costly and cumbersome “last mile,” potentially harnessing wireless technologies to get service to consumers.

This fiber box is a small part of what makes up Google Fiber’s “last mile” components. This unit services 109 apartments at The Pad on Harvard, an upscale apartment community in College Park, Georgia. According to the building’s developer, this box connects to long-existing fiber lines that run along Atlanta’s mass transit system. 

In 2016, Google Fiber acquired WebPass, which found success in delivering wireless, high-speed connections to large apartment buildings in major urban areas. In the time that Google Fiber has left Atlanta consumers waiting, Comcast and AT&T — the two dominant broadband pro­viders serving the area — have improved and expanded their networks. That’s one reason why almost nine out of 10 Fulton County households currently are able to access inter­net speeds of 250 Mbps or greater. In fact, Comcast and AT&T now advertise speeds equal to or greater than Google Fiber’s gigabit package.

AT&T’s monthly sticker price is $80, while Comcast charges up to $140. Google Fiber’s service — where it exists — is cheaper at $70 a month. Another provider, Yomura Fiber, emerged for the first time precisely because of Google Fiber’s abandonment of Atlanta, said the company’s marketing director Owen Stephens.

And even though its availability lags behind that of its competitors, Google Fiber is, in a way, still benefiting.

There’s an ad for that

Google itself makes most of its money put­ting ads in front of consumers’ eyes. More bandwidth and faster connections — even when offered by competitors — mean Google can place ads faster and more efficiently.

While Google Fiber hasn’t disrupted the broadband market in any material way, “they have spurred competition and cre­ated fiber where there wasn’t going to be any fiber,” said Seth Wallis-Jones, consumer analyst at IHS Markit. “So in that respect, they’ve succeeded.”

Still in the dark

Local governments barely hear a whisper out of Google Fiber these days, according to Ryan Fender and other officials interviewed for this story.

Google Fiber’s once-robust practice of applying for permits has come to a crawl, according to a BuildZoom analysis for this story. Yet, Google Fiber continues to encourage consumers to sign up.

As for its promise to keep Atlanta informed along the way, Google Fiber has this message for folks who are still waiting:

“We appreciate their patience,” the company wrote in an emailed statement. “When we have new information, we will provide it so they can take action.”

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