Articles

Austin’s Google Fiber Rollout Advancing Despite Obstacles

The service has reached some Austin neighborhoods and delivered high speed Internet, but some are complaining of the increased traffic congestion caused by Google Fiber's construction.

by Gary Dinges and Claudia Grisales, Austin American-Statesman / February 8, 2016

(TNS) -- Some people already have it. Many more say they want it.

But for most Austinites, it could still be years before they get access to superfast 1-gigabit Internet service from Google Fiber.

Google Fiber’s deployment in Central Texas has been anything but easy. After announcing plans for the service in April 2013, the company essentially started its Austin network from scratch and is having to run countless miles of cable.

So far, the focus has been on parts of South and Southeast Austin, with plans to expand over time. Google hasn’t said how long that could take.

“We’ve been making big gains, but it’s a massive, complex infrastructure project,” said Parisa Fatehi-Weeks, Google Fiber’s community impact manager.

Areas where Fiber is already up and running include chunks of the Lady Bird Lake, Bluebonnet and Ben White “fiberhoods” just south of downtown, Fatehi-Weeks said. Google, like most cable and Internet providers, declines to say how many subscribers it has.

At 1-gigabit speeds, a user can download 25 songs in 1 second, a TV show in 3 seconds and a high-definition movie in less than 36 seconds, according to industry figures.

“The difference in speed is absolutely incredible,” said Jake Ragusa, a Google Fiber customer in South Austin. “It’s a game changer. I like to invite people over to my house just to show off the speed tests.”

Google has worked to immerse itself in the Austin community, Fatehi-Weeks said, such as committing to bringing high-speed Internet service to public housing and making its Fiber Space offices in downtown Austin available to groups for meetings and other gatherings.

The company has also been working with small businesses, switching them to Google Fiber with the goal of helping them boost productivity.

Shed Barbershop, 2210 South First St., made the switch about three months ago, owner Chris Applegate said.

“It’s been great so far,” Applegate said. “We haven’t had any issues whatsoever. Before Google, we attempted to work with two other companies. Both were a nightmare. We used to see their service trucks over here every single week.”

Paul de Sa, an analyst with Bernstein Research who has tracked Google Fiber’s progress, said recently that Google Fiber’s deployment has been “slow and limited.” But the process is helping Google figure out how to deploy the service in other markets — something it has already said it plans to do — and build a profitable business.

“We believe Google Fiber is taking a phased approach and learning as it goes, exploring the demand, economics, competitive response, and operational issues associated with the business,” de Sa said in a December report. And “what it has learned to date, based on its launches in Kansas City, Provo and Austin, has given Fiber more confidence in the possibility” of building a profitable business.

Mark Strama, head of Google Fiber operations in Austin, said the Internet giant is always looking for ways to do things faster and in a less disruptive manner.

“Google Fiber is building one of the biggest and most complex infrastructure projects in Austin’s history,” Strama said. “While many large-scale infrastructure projects take decades to complete, we’re building thousands of miles of fiber throughout the city in a matter of years.”

“We know there is a lot enthusiasm for superfast Internet in Austin, so we’re working to connect Austinites as quickly as we can,” Strama added.

Construction complaints

Not everyone’s excited, though. In fact, for some patience has worn thin. Last year, the city of Austin’s 311 services received 363 complaints connected to Internet providers’ construction and installation activity. Of those, 254 were for Google Fiber and its contractors and about 100 were for AT&T and Time Warner.

“We try to get out ahead of it. We give everyone a heads-up before we start,” Fatehi-Weeks said. “When we’re done, we’ll put everything back like it was — or better.”

The company also has a toll-free number that people can call to discuss concerns, Fatehi-Weeks said: 1-877-454-6959.

Starting in January 2015, a South Austin church said it began to see potential signs that Google Fiber construction had damaged its sewer line, leading to big plumbing repair bills. A representative for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church said Google Fiber’s contractor pierced a nearby sewer line as it was laying down fiber-optic cables in Barton Hills months earlier.

Google Fiber covered the church’s $6,800 tab, and the Austin Water Utility conceded that the damaged line might have not been marked. Austin Water said it ended up covering the $3,000 it cost to repair the line.

Jason Hill, a spokesman for the utility, said Austin Water needed to step up to resolve the issue amid a demanding project of building a fiber network.

“This is unprecedented to put in this amount of line in this amount of time,” Hill said.

Increased competition

Google Fiber’s entry into the Central Texas market has also inspired action from the company’s competitors.

On the heels of Google Fiber’s 2013 announcement that it would deploy 1-gigabit Internet in Austin, several other companies such as AT&T and Time Warner, the region’s dominant cable provider, stepped forward with new plans to increase their Internet service speeds in the region.

It was San Marcos-based Grande Communications that was first out of the gate. The company has been steadily adding neighborhoods throughout Central Texas including, most recently, the Mueller development in Central Austin.

“After trying the other guys and being very disappointed with their level of Internet quality and service, I switched to Grande,” said Bob Steene, a Grande 1-gigabit customer. “Immediately I was happy I did. Install went smoothly with no hassle. Setup was a no-brainier.”

Grande said it plans to add more neighborhoods soon.

“We have seen enormous response to our fast Internet speeds,” said Matt Rohre, general manager and senior vice president of operations at Grande. “People are glad that they don’t have to wait when Grande has the service available right now. Plus they can buy from a Texas-based company.”

Even smaller providers have jumped into the superfast Internet mix. For example, Suddenlink Communications said in October it rolled out 1-gigabit service to homes in Georgetown, Jarrell, Leander and Pflugerville.

In the LaGrange and Smithville areas, LiveAir Networks provides 1-gigabit Internet, as well.

In 2013, AT&T announced plans to offer Austin customers up to 1-gigabit Internet service over its 100 percent fiber AT&T GigaPower network. The service was launched Dec. 11, 2013.

The move, the company told the American-Statesman, was to test if this was something customers wanted. Now, company leaders say, they have their answer.

“Customer demand and sales of our ultra-fast Internet service on the AT&T GigaPower network have exceeded our expectations since we first launched in Austin,” the company said in a statement.

AT&T said it has continued to invest in expanding access to AT&T GigaPower in the Austin area, and the Austin region’s network remains one of the largest among the 20 metro areas where AT&T GigaPower is currently available.

AT&T’s efforts have spread nationally. The company’s GigaPower service is now available across 20 major metro areas, including Los Angeles, Houston, San Antonio, Kansas City, Kan., Chicago, Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.

The company recently announced plans to expand the GigaPower program to residents in 36 new U.S. metro areas, bringing the overall tally of GigaPower metro regions to 56.

AT&T says it has put technicians on the streets and in homes to expand availability of speeds up to 1 gigabit per second as quickly and with as little disruption as possible.

In many cases, AT&T’s fiber-optic network runs from a central office to neighborhood equipment. From that point, the company upgrades existing copper wires to fiber. In neighborhoods where there is already fiber to homes, the company says it has upgraded the technology at both ends of the network to deliver the ultra-fast Internet.

The effort nationally was essentially born in Austin, the company says.

“Born out of a pilot in Austin and now expanding to at least 56 metros, we’re committed to bringing this little gig to market,” the company said.

In Time Warner’s case, the company in 2015 completed the rollout of faster Internet speeds of up to 300 megabits per second.

“All six of our residential Internet plans saw an increase in speeds” as a result of the upgrades, Time Warner spokeswoman Melissa Sorola said.

Time Warner’s business customers also saw upgrades, with new speeds of 10 gigabits per second, Sorola noted.

The company has also boosted its WiFi access with more than 7,000 hot spots in Austin. That’s part of a network of 125,000 Time Warner hot spots nationally.

Those upgrades coincided with a revamping of Time Warner Cable’s customer service efforts nationally. Long the target of jokes over frustrating customer service, Time Warner issued an open letter to customers in fall 2015 listing new improvements.

Among them, Time Warner in October launched TWC TechTracker, which features an automated notification process that sends customers details regarding service appointments via text message, email or phone.

Customers now have “the ability to make changes to appointments via notifications received, and receiving the technician’s name, identification number and even photo … once the technician is en route,” Sorola said. “Customers can reschedule or cancel the appointment at each notification point. The customer also can quickly and easily confirm the technician’s on-time arrival by phone, without having to speak to an agent.”

©2016 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.