After Google Fiber fizzles: What’s next for high-speed broadband?

After Google Fiber fizzles: What’s next for high-speed broadband?

Following the October announcement by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, that it was scaling back its expansion of Google Fiber  initiative to bring ultra-fast internet access to several cities, those municipalities are looking for Plan B.

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Despite Google Fiber hitting the brakes, cities’ desire for gigabit connections --  about 50 to 100 times faster than typical  -- remains unchanged because of the benefits such access speeds would mean, including providing access to underserved rural areas, enabling businesses to operate more efficiently and generally improving cities by making them more attractive places to live and work.

“High-speed internet ... is not just a want, it is a need,” said Harrison Diamond, business relations officer for Huntsville, Ala., in an email earlier this year. “Huntsville needs to have access to this.” City residents have been clamoring for access to affordable high-speed internet for years, with some businesses citing it as a major obstacle to the city’s economic development, he added.

On Oct. 26, Google Fiber told AL.com that the Huntsville build-out was "still good to go" despite the company canceling expansion plans in eight other cities.

City crews began installing Google’s fiber cable in May, and the network should be online in the middle of next year, although it could take three years to complete the build-out and cost about $60 million.

The work is part of a partnership among Google Fiber, Huntsville Utilities and the city in which Google Fiber – and any other internet service provider – leases the network. This represents a shift in Google’s thinking. “To date, we’ve built the majority of our Google Fiber networks from scratch,” the company said in a Feb. 22 announcement. “But over the past five years, we’ve repeatedly seen that every city is unique. So in order to bring fiber to more people, we’ve taken different approaches in different places.”

In Provo, Utah, that meant delivering Google Fiber over a network the company purchased from the city. In Atlanta, Google Fiber is both building its own network and using existing fiber. Huntsville is the first partnership in which the company works with a city-owned network.

“Huntsville looked at it and said, ‘Why don’t we build an infrastructure and then go around and find other entities that are willing to provide services to the residents and the businesses?’”  Communities United for Broadband Director Craig Settles said. That way Huntsville gets the infrastructure it needs, revenue from leasing that infrastructure, and broadband for residents and business. For Google, “it’s not as expensive, it doesn’t have as many hassles as they would have in Nashville because the city, in essence, is doing the heavy lifting,” he said.  Plus, “Google doesn’t have to fight the incumbent.”

In October, Comcast sued the Nashville, Tenn., city government and mayor to stop an ordinance that would give Google Fiber faster access to utility poles. AT&T filed a similar suit in September. Both ISPs want to block the One Touch Make Ready ordinance that lets new ISPs, such as Google Fiber, make wire adjustments on utility poles themselves rather than waiting for AT&T and Comcast to do it, according to an October ArsTechnica article.

Another way forward for cities still eyeing Google Fiber is through wireless. With its recent acquisition of Webpass, a wireless internet service provider that also can offer up to 1 gigabit/sec speeds, Alphabet added six more connected metropolitan areas and paved the way for wireless build-outs, Settles said.

In the acquisition announcement, Google Fiber reiterated its commitment to a hybrid approach to future expansion “with wireless playing an integral part.”  Webpass’ point-to-point technology sets up wireless transmission links between buildings in densely populated areas. “Residents simply plug their device or router into the data jack Webpass installs in their unit, and they’re good to go, browsing with speeds reaching up to a Gig,” the company said.

With this approach, Google can “still be a player in getting people online,” Settles said, adding that for Google Fiber, the bottom line was always the bottom line. “The more people they can get online, the better because that means they can up their ad rate, and No. 2, the faster the network is – the internet is – the better it is for Google as well.”

First the frenzy, then the hangover

The National Broadband Plan that the Federal Communications Commission released in 2010 kicked off the frenzy for speedy internet, and Google Fiber helped fan the fire soon after by announcing a contest for cities to win a Google Fiber build-out of fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) service. About 1,100 cities applied, and Kansas City was the first winner, with its new network going live in 2013.

Today, Google Fiber’s website lists 21 metropolitan areas as current, upcoming or potential Fiber cities. One reason for the slow march forward could be good old competition. ISPs in the cities, spooked by Google Fiber, started getting in on the gigabit game, too. AT&T has Giga Power, Comcast has XFinity and Verizon created FiOS.

“If you present  those companies with a reasonable competitor, those companies will increase their speed, will increase their build-outs, will get into the party, because that fear of competition is almost like a drug,” in terms of getting these incumbents to act, Settles said.  “If they don’t have to, they won’t build another network or improve the quality of their network. But if they get competition or the hint of competition, now you get those people to move.”

Building such networks is hugely expensive, however, so providers also need substantial customer demand to make the investments worthwhile. The first super-fast gigabit networks went live six years ago and despite the hype, users have largely ignored their potential, according to an Oct. 26 Vox article.

Regulations are also hindering cities’ broadband advancement. In August, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati went against FCC and upheld states’ ability to pass laws restricting municipalities from offering broadband – a case resulting from Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., where each was trying to expand its own high-speed network despite state laws preventing towns from selling internet services beyond their borders.

About 14 percent of Americans have access to gigabit-speed internet today, according to a Vox report. Other countries have been faster to implement these networks, although that hasn’t resulted in a big technological edge, the article adds. For instance, the number of fixed broadband subscriptions in the Americas in 2016 was 18.9 percent, compared to 30 percent in Europe, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

Broadband efforts abroad are also changing their tactics. Australia is scaling back on its $43 billion National Broadband Network (nbn), which had the goal of providing FTTP to more than 90 percent of Australian residences by 2018, according to a Nov. 7 TechPolicyDaily article. Now the Multi-Technology Mix initiative aims to upgrade existing network infrastructure to work with nbn.

Here in the United States, Google’s popularity itself has held broadband development back, Settles said. Getting Google Fiber has become something of a status symbol, but “the cities that don’t have lights in their eyes and don’t get into the hype, all they care about is getting broadband,” he said.

That star status has overshadowed an important discussion about the way forward, Settles added. “The issue of community broadband and the issue of wireless and maybe fiber/wireless hybrid networks are two issues that need to be explored,” he said. “The fact that a hybrid wired/wireless network is a way to get cities to move forward faster and more cheaply is a big deal, and that, I think, has gotten lost in the discussion about, ‘Oh, what’s Google doing now?’”

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