Most businesses seeking city permits or franchising agreements must comply with local rules and regulations. They have to work through reams of laws and guidelines and conform to city codes.
With Google Fiber it’s the other way around: the cities must meet the company’s demands.
When Google announced last month that it would like to offer a high-speed Internet service in Portland, Ore., and five suburbs, it presented the cities with a 29-page checklist of needs – and a May 1 deadline to respond.
The checklist isn’t exactly an ultimatum – there’s a certain degree of flexibility built into Google’s planning process. And many U.S. cities, Portland included, had already been working to streamline their planning and permitting processes for broadband networks in hopes that Google, or someone else, would leap in and build one.
Still, Google arrived at its City Hall press conference last month with a great deal of leverage. The company has a powerful brand and an appealing offer: Who doesn’t want faster Internet, and more competition?
Last month, even as Google held out the possibility of coming to Portland, the company warned of regulatory or logistical hurdles that might stand in its way.
“It’s entirely possible we won’t be able to bring Google Fiber to the Portland area,” said Google Fiber general manager Kevin Lo. That put the onus squarely on the smiling local officials at Google’s press conference to make it happen.
After four weeks of planning, they’re still smiling.
“There’s an incredible amount of coordination and collaboration. And, thankfully, I love it,” said Mary Beth Henry, director of Portland’s office for community technology. The Portland City Council will vote Wednesday to give her an additional title – project manager for the Google Fiber initiative.
Building a brand-new network across the metro area will require stringing, or burying, hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable. Beyond local permits and franchises to use the public rights of way, Google may also need to strike deals with the private companies that own the region’s utility poles.
That’s why Google put together its checklist – to simplify its own planning process by making local governments do the legwork.
“This is a lot of information to put together,” said Rondella Hawkins, telecommunications and regulatory affairs manager for the city of Austin, where Google has been planning a new fiber network for nearly a year.
Google originally hoped to start offering service in Austin by April 2014, but Hawkins said that – to her knowledge – network construction hasn’t begun.
Google and Austin are working together, she said, to overcome logistical issues created by challenging terrain and by bigger construction projects, already under way, that create obstacles for the new fiber network.
“Getting your arms around and coordinating all this issues, that’s the biggest challenge,” Hawkins said.
Google’s strategy for enlisting city agencies to help with its planning echoes what the company did four years ago, when it held a national competition for its first residential fiber project – a contest Kansas City ultimately won. More than 1,100 cities bid for Google’s attention, including Portland, which crafted a detailed analysis of how the project could work here.
This time Google started with a list of nine metro areas, including Portland, and presented each with the same set of needs and requirements. Potentially, Google says, its fiber project could come to all of them – but it insists on civic help.
And Google plays hardball. Last fall, when the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park briefly delayed approval of a Google Fiber deal while it reviewed legal language, the company put plans to expand there on hold indefinitely – a decision broadly interpreted as a slap at local officials.
“We need to refocus our energy and our resources on the communities that are waiting for Fiber,” the company told the Kansas City Star.
While Google wants planning help, it’s not asking for financial assistance. In fact, if Google Fiber moves forward the company (or, more likely, its customers) will almost certainly have to pay the city – paying the same type of assessment that Comcast, CenturyLink and other telecommunications companies do.
“All of our franchises require compensation for the right of way. The right of way is public property,” said Henry, Portland’s project manager.
How much that will cost, obviously, is up for discussion. So is the network’s footprint.
Existing phone and cable TV networks were built under an agreement that they serve every part of the city. But Portland didn’t ask for anything similar when Qwest Communications contemplated a competitive cable TV network in 2007 (company officials in Denver killed that plan), and Google wouldn’t countenance a universal service requirement now.
To win consideration as a Google “fiberhood,” the company says local residents will have to demonstrate an appetite for the service. That could skew service toward wealthier parts of the city. (In areas it serves, Google does plan to offer free, 5 megabit-per-second Internet connections to customers who will pay a $300, up-front installation fee. That’s 20 times slower than Google’s standard gigabit service, but perfectly adequate for basic web surfing and e-mail.)
Portland also requires that a new communications franchise meet some “public benefit,” opening the door to further negotiations over where Google will bring its service and how much it will cost.
Google says it wants to make a decision on which cities will get its fiber network by the end of the year. If that happens, everyone will have to move fast. Henry said Portland has a four-month approval process, so that means the city and Google will need a franchise deal by the end of the summer.
Compare that to the two years Comcast spent negotiating a renewal for its Portland cable TV franchise. In statements, Comcast and CenturyLink each said they want to ensure Google gets no special treatment in its franchise negotiations, and that all competitors are treated equally.
There are many other considerations and complications. In addition to Portland, Google will also need to negotiate some kind of franchise agreement with the five suburbs – Hillsboro, Beaverton, Tigard, Lake Oswego and Gresham – that it says it wants to serve.
And since Google wants to avoid digging up every sidewalk in the metro area, an expensive and disruptive process, it will need agreements to string its fiber along tens of thousands of existing utility poles. Most of those poles aren’t in public hands – they’re owned and maintained by other utilities, including Portland General Electric and prospective Google Fiber competitor CenturyLink.
PGE won’t say whether it’s had talks with Google yet, but spokesman Steve Corson said the company has more than 55,000 utility poles in the cities Google is considering. More than 110 companies and local governments lease space on PGE poles, Corson said.
“We have sort of a basic template we work off with these folks,” Corson said. “They can request changes. That’s where the negotiation comes in.”
Google and Portland began negotiating, secretly, last fall for a “broadband franchise” – a new hybrid modeled on templates created by existing phone and cable TV franchises. Henry, the city’s community technology director, said she’s under a nondisclosure agreement and can’t discuss the ongoing talks.
Meanwhile, Portland and other cities have assembled working groups and task forces to coordinate planning efforts, and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has said the city will meet Google’s needs without hiring additional staff.
The six Oregon cities selected by Google have already met with each other, and their Google Fiber project managers plan to meet at least weekly through the May deadline. Portland is checking in every week with Google, too, Henry said, and already has some of information it requested ready for upload to Google.
It’s a complicated process, she said, but not an overwhelming one – and Henry said she’s “confident” Google will be satisfied with the results.
“We’re collaborating,” she said, “and it’s going well.”
©2014 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)