What Happened to Google Fiber?

In Category Misc Posted by err0r On 07/19/18 Comments 0

For a long time, Google Fiber was the most exciting broadband provider out there. Cities wanted it, tech people drooled over it; and on a loftier level, it even promised to help bridge the “digital divide” between rich and poor. But now, things are looking bleak: Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Google Fiber is being scaled back dramatically (again) as it named Greg McCray its new CEO, with “several hundred” of its employees in that division being sent to other areas of the company.


Google Fiber, part of the Access division of Google’s parent company Alphabet, was launched in 2010 in Kansas City, providing gigabit broadband and TV services over fiber optic cables. Gigabit broadband is 40 times faster than the 25mbps speeds required to be considered broadband. Over the next seven years, it expanded to eight other metropolitan areas, including Austin and Salt Lake City. Then, in October 2016, the company announced it was pausing Fiber expansion into its “potential fiber cities” and cutting staff. This week, even more staff are gone. What changed?


Part of the problem is simply that expanding fiber broadband was always going to be a massive undertaking, and was always going to face some big hurdles. Laying miles and miles of cables takes time and money—and as one Alphabet employee told the Wall Street Journal last year, “Everyone who has done fiber to the home has given up because it costs way too much money and takes way too much time.”


As Wired pointed out, the big problem is connecting existing fiber cables to people’s homes, which is “hellishly expensive.” It’s partly just a physical problem—if a new broadband provider wants to set up in a city, it has to connect each home it wants to serve to their network, which means a whole lot of wires. But it’s also a regulatory hurdle, particularly regarding something called “pole attachment”—literally the physical process of attaching wires to telephone poles, which is regulated by local government. When a new provider wants to attach their wires, each provider with wires already on the pole has to send a technician to move its wires to make way for the new one.


What that means is, as Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Project at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance told Gizmodo, “the new guy gets screwed.” Google Fiber complained in a blog post last year that it had only been able to upgrade 33 telephone poles out of 88,000 in Nashville, thanks to these rules. Google has pushed hard to promote a different policy, known as “one touch make ready,” which would allow a single provider to make all those changes in one go.


But that hasn’t been plain sailing either, with incumbent providers like AT&T and Charter filing lawsuits left and right in cities that adopt the policy. AT&T’s complaints with the policy have ranged from Google providing inaccurate information on poles, to saying it could lead to service disruption if there are mistakes, to objecting that it would allow changes to poles they own “without AT&T’s consent and with little notice.”


It’s not that Google doesn’t have the money to fight these things, but it might not have been worth the resources to try and seriously compete with an incumbent provider on this issue—particularly when those providers are already so entrenched in the policy scene. In Tennessee, AT&T employed five times as many lobbyists as Google did last year—25 to Google’s five.


Another problem that’s faced Google Fiber: convincing people to sign up. According to Mitchell, while customers love the super fast speeds once they get them, it’s often hard to convince people to switch “even from a provider they hate,” because they don’t have time to wait at home for installation or spend time on the phone with their provider. Switching is a pain in the ass, basically. While adoption rates have been high in middle- and upper-class areas, low-income areas haven’t adopted Google Fiber as fast.


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