Google Fiber: 8 Things to Know as Portland Readies Wednesday Vote

Google says it will hold "fiber rallies" to build interest in specific neighborhoods, and the areas with the highest numbers of committed subscribers will get service

by Mike Rogoway, McClatchy News Service / June 11, 2014

Google Fiber goes up for a vote Wednesday.

The Portland City Council will take up a franchise agreement with the company, voting on a deal Google and Portland reached in April. It's the biggest milestone to date in Google's plan to bring superfast gigabit Internet service to Portland, perhaps as early as 2015. (A gigabit is 1,000 megabits, roughly 100 times faster than standard Internet connections now.)

Approval of the 29-page, 10-year pact won't guarantee Google Fiber will build. Qwest won a city cable TV franchise in 2007 but neither it nor its successor, CenturyLink, ever moved forward with the video service they had contemplated.

Google says it's still evaluating local regulations, topography and logistical issues. The company says it will make a decision on serving Portland, and five surrounding suburbs (Gresham, Tigard, Lake Oswego, Beaverton and Hillsboro), by year's end. It has yet to begin formal franchise talks with those jurisdictions.

In the meantime, here are some things to know about Google Fiber as the council readies Wednesday's vote:

It's not for everyone: Google Fiber's franchise deal with the city doesn't obligate it to serve every neighborhood. Google says it will hold "fiber rallies" to build interest in specific neighborhoods, and the areas with the highest numbers of committed subscribers will get service. That could leave out low-income neighborhoods, though Google says subscribers who sign up for its low-cost 5 mbps service will have just as much influence on where it builds as those who sign up for its premium gigabit service and cable TV.

You don't need it...yet: Few services can take advantage of gigabit speeds right now, and the Internet isn't often capable of delivering it. Take Netflix, for example: Its average speed on Google Fiber is 3.5 mbps – a tiny fraction of a gigabit. That's because the long-haul networks that bring Google Fiber to Portland aren't fast enough to sustain higher speeds, even if your local connection is. Still, 3.5 mbps is perfectly adequate for Netflix's high-definition stream. If you don't need a gig, though, you might need more than Comcast's standard 20 mbps if you have multiple people in your house streaming video or playing games simultaneously. And in time, as ultra-high-definition and other services emerge, you might find uses for a gig.

Google Fiber plays nice with Netflix: Comcast and Netflix made headlines earlier this year, first when Netflix agreed to pay for higher speeds on Comcast's network and then when Netflix argued loudly that it shouldn't have to. Google embraces "net neutrality," the principle that all Internet content should be treated equally. Google hopes that allowing content providers fast access to its network will be a selling point with consumers, helping it win customers away from Comcast.

Google isn't asking for taxpayer help, but taxpayers could end up paying anyway: Google negotiated a special deal with Portland that exempts it from the 3 percent "PEG" fee Comcast pays to support public interest, educational and governmental cable TV programming. If Google steals TV customers from Comcast, that will mean less PEG money for public access and governmental channels. If Comcast seeks the same deal Google gets (and its own franchise has a "most favored nation" clause that entitles it to do so), then it might erode PEG funds further. If the city wants to keep those channels operating it might have to kick in some funds itself.

No zombies; Blazers are TBD: Google Fiber doesn't carry AMC, which broadcasts "Walking Dead" and other popular cable series, and says it's not close to a deal to begin offering the cable network. It's unclear at this point whether it would carry the Trail Blazers, whose local cable rights are owned by Comcast SportsNet. (In Provo, Google Fiber does not carry Root Sports' telecasts of Utah Jazz games.) Satellite TV viewers in the Portland area have gone without the Blazers since 2008, but Comcast did cut a deal with Verizon when it built a rival cable system in Washington and east Multnomah counties. (Frontier now operates that system.) Google Fiber's Utah system does carry the Pac-12 Network, which is not available on DirecTV.

It ain't gonna be pretty: Google wants to install about 15 "fiber huts" (12x28x9-feett) to help run its local network on public property around the city. Additionally, it plans about 200 (2x2x4-feet) utility cabinets in parking strips in neighborhoods throughout the city to distribute the network to clusters of homes. Portland generally doesn't allow such cabinets now, but the city is in the process of rewriting its rules to authorize them. The city says any rules changes will not be limited to Google, so expect other telecom companies (CenturyLink, Comcast, Verizon and AT&T) to add dozens or hundreds more cabinets along residential streets throughout the city. That could signal a major change in Portland's streetscape aesthetic.

If you live in an apartment, it's complicated: Google Fiber will serve select "fiberhoods" across the city (see No. 1.) But if you live in an apartment, you may not have access to Google Fiber even if you live in a fiberhood. Comcast and CenturyLink already have agreements with many building owners. Google Fiber says it will attempt to negotiate its own agreements.

Don't count on lower prices: Google Fiber is a premium service, starting at $70 month for the gigabit package and another $50 a month for cable TV. That's roughly on par with Comcast's rates, though Google offers significantly faster speeds (and more features in its TV package). So competition is more likely to push up service quality than it is to force down prices (though Google Fiber does offer a 5 mbps download service for the cost of a $300, one-time installation fee). Washington County and east Multnomah County residents have had the option of choosing Frontier's FiOS service (previously offered by Verizon) for several years, and it's had no appreciable effect on Comcast's rates.

©2014 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)