As recently as five years ago, many thought Google Fiber might be a path to citywide high-speed Internet connectivity, but as Google’s plans have changed, government must now look to other options.
Google Fiber stopped all services in Louisville, Ky., and left town last month. Meanwhile, the Internet company’s efforts to bring its high-speed Internet service to places like Nashville, Tenn., and Raleigh, N.C., have also seemingly stumbled or stalled.
These recent troubles are all a far cry from as recently as five years ago, when Google Fiber’s success in markets as diverse as Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah, seemed to foretell a bright future for high-speed Internet access across the country. Now, however, municipal broadband experts say that the cities need to look for other means to increase connectivity rates in their jurisdictions, including dark fiber installed by other companies, as well as infrastructure built by utility co-ops.
Isaac Paxman, deputy mayor and public information officer of Provo, Utah, has nothing but good things to say about Google Fiber.
Google Fiber is part of Alphabet Inc., much like the eponymous search engine with which it shares its name. Google Fiber launched in the Kansas City, Mo., metropolitan area with an announcement in 2011, followed by a network that first became available to residents in 2012. Google Fiber is, simply put, a lightning-fast form of online connectivity that brings gigabit Internet speeds to entire communities.
After launching in Kansas City, the service next started taking customers in Austin, Texas, in 2014, followed by Provo, Utah; Salt Lake City; Charlotte, N.C; and Atlanta. Paxman said that the benefits of having Google Fiber in the Provo community have been two-fold.
“Beyond just the nuts and bolts of it,” Paxman said, “I think it’s elevated a little bit our sense of pride in who we are as a city.”
Google Fiber has essentially helped give residents in Provo access to unprecedented Internet speeds, while also lending a brand-name sense of tech savvy to a community that’s many miles and a veritable lifestyle removed from the bleeding edge company in Silicon Valley. Provo now has 100 percent fiber availability in the city, a status that has helped it entice companies to set up shop there, Paxman said.
With Google Fiber now leaving Louisville, losing momentum elsewhere and slowing the number of new cities it plans to set up in down to nil, however, some municipal broadband experts say that it’s time for communities to disregard the brand name and look to less heralded means of connecting their communities to high-speed Internet.
Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, described cities like Austin, Kansas City and Provo as winners of "the Google lottery.”
There are plenty of obvious benefits to having Google Fiber come to your city, much as there are a lot of great things that can happen if you win the lottery. Winning the lottery, however, is not a sound plan for one’s financial stability over the long term, and neither is waiting for Google Fiber to show up and take care of connectivity issues in your area, such as affordability and access. There are other private companies building fiber networks in cities, including AT&T and CenturyLink, but the difference with Google was that it promised connectivity to its network for 100 percent of a region, rather than just the areas where it made the most economic sense.
Google Fiber, Mitchell said, was essentially the Internet giant’s efforts to create some tangential benefits for itself and its other products by ensuring that more residents across the country had high-speed Internet. It was never really designed to be a main line of business or profits for Google. This strategy, however, changed with the advent of new CFO Ruth Porat moving from Morgan Stanley to Google in 2015.
“What really happened was Google had a new CFO come in,” Mitchell said, “and that CFO was more interested in maximizing profits than the indirect benefits they got by spurring better broadband across the United States. Previously, Google recognized it was in its own long-term interests for everyone in the U.S. to have better broadband, because they would use online services more, but the new CFO I think saw more opportunities in artificial intelligence, driverless vehicles and stuff like that rather, than this bankshot to improve Google’s value over time.”
As a result, the Google lottery has essentially ended, with no new cities to come and only slow expansion in the markets where Google Fiber already exists.
“The general sense,” Mitchell said, “is that the people who were driving this project have all been driven out of it. There are people who are still trying to do the best they can with it, but there’s not a lot of energy toward new investment.”
The question then becomes what can a city like Louisville, or any of a thousand others across the country, do now that they’ve missed the Google lottery.
Craig Settles, another national broadband analyst, said government across the country needs to forget about Google, which may be a brand name that makes it easy to foster community buy-in but just isn’t a practical or realistic choice.
Settles sees a more realistic future in places like Botetourt County, Va., which he described in a recent report as being “among the pacesetters of community broadband networks.”
Botetourt County, Settles said, took careful and realistic stock of the options available to them and built a plan from there.
“The main thing is they looked at it all differently,” Settles said. “They never entertained the issue of Google, because that wasn’t part of the world they were working with, and I think that’s what governments need to do.”
Part of this effort involves taking stock of fiber and other connectivity options that may be present in communities without government knowing or realizing.
“There are so many places across the country where people don’t know there’s fiber in the ground,” Settles said, “either because it’s been abandoned by a company that went out of business or because there were private companies involved that didn’t have the responsibility to report to the city.”
This can be addressed by broadening the numbers of people involved in conversations about municipal broadband and bringing more stakeholders to the table. This, of course, sounds simple, but Settles said that in most areas, these sorts of expanded conversations have not been conducted.
Many utility co-ops also have extant fiber in the ground and are starting to partner with municipalities to use it to give access to government and businesses. This may not have the flashy big name that something like Google does, but for many areas of the country, it’s an increasingly realistic means of fostering access to high-speed Internet, especially in rural areas where there is no profit-driven incentive for massive private Internet service providers to set up shop.