Google Fiber High-Speed Internet Has Changed Austin, Texas

Google bringing ultra-high-speed Internet to Austin led to more — and better — options for Austin consumers, spurring existing providers to raise their game and resulting in better service at lower rates.

by Kara Carlson, Hojun Choi, Austin American-Statesman / January 6, 2020
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(TNS) — On the morning of April 9, 2013, the excitement around downtown Austin was palpable.

Google was about to make official what local business and technology leaders had been hoping for: That the search engine giant was bringing its ultra-high-speed Google Fiber Internet service to Austin.

Several hundred visitors crowded into downtown's Brazos Hall for the formal announcement, and looked on as Google executives, business leaders and politicians touted the arrival of the service as a huge win for Austin.

The impact on the region's tech sector would be enormous, they said, and the high-speed service would be a boon to economic development leaders. Plus, they said, it would make Austin one of the most-connected cities in the nation, furthering its status as a tech hub. Austin was just the second metro area in the nation to land the service, which runs at speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, or about 100 times faster than the typical broadband Internet connection in this country.

Then-Gov. Rick Perry told the crowd that "with the installment of Google Fiber, the case can be made that Texas is one step closer to becoming the nation's next technological hub, inviting some of the boldest and most creative visionaries to call Austin their home." And Eugene Sepulveda, CEO of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Central Texas, said the arrival of Google Fiber was "the next big thing in Austin."

It's coming up on seven years since those heady claims were made, and five years since the service first became available in some areas of Austin.

The question is, has Google Fiber really had the impact on Austin that politicians and industry experts expected?

The answer is complicated.

There is general agreement that Google's plan to bring ultra-high-speed Internet to the masses led to more -- and better -- high-speed Internet options for Austin consumers. Google Fiber's entry into the market spurred existing providers to raise their game, and the result has been better and faster Internet service at lower rates, industry experts say. It has also led to better connectivity in long-underserved areas, such as East Austin.

What's less clear is the impact Google Fiber has had on the area's technology sector -- specifically gaming, research and the startup community -- and its usefulness as a recruiting tool for the city's economic development leaders. The uneven nature of the service's deployment -- along with some property damage done while contractors installed fiber lines around the city -- has also led to some criticism.

An uneven rollout

Austin certainly had good reason to be excited about landing Google Fiber.

The city was just the second U.S. market Google selected for its high-speed Fiber service, following rollout in Kansas City. And experts say the technology have nearly universal applications.

Fiber-speed service is "as close to a future-proof technology that has ever existed," said Jim Hayes, president of the Fiber Optic Association, a California-based nonprofit that provides training for industry professionals.

"Everything relies on it. The Internet relies on it," said Hayes, who has been working in the fiber optics industry for about 40 years.

However, actually delivering the service to Austin consumers hasn't gone exactly as Google initially promised.

The technology giant created a system whereby residents could sign up to express interest in having Google Fiber come to their neighborhood. Once enough interest was expressed, the neighborhood would be added to a list of future targets, the company said.

Google initially said rollout of the service would start in mid 2014. However, the company didn't formally begin accepting neighborhood signups until early December 2014, with the first eligible areas being in South and Southeast Austin. The service actually became available in a few South Austin neighborhoods in January 2015.

The service has since spread toward west and central Austin. Google Fiber is currently available or in the installation phase in at least some portion of 19 ZIP codes around Austin. For comparison, in 2016 the service was available in just five ZIP codes.

The Google Fiber installation process has also created issues, drawing hundreds of complaints filed with the city in 2016. In Southeast Austin, residents complained of construction eyesores, and some had damage done to their homes when they said work by Google's contractors caused blocked storm drains that led to flooding.

Daniel Lucio, government and community affairs manager for Google Fiber in Austin, said construction-related challenges in the city were largely due to limestone getting in the way of dig sites to lay down cable. Lucio said a new method called shallow trenching has been effective in Austin.

Sasha Petrovic, general manager for Google Fiber markets in Texas and parts of California, said Google in 2016 acquired California-based Webpass, which uses radio technology that makes it easier to deploy high-speed Internet service.

"Our tool kit keeps on building the more and more we go into the market," Petrovic said.

Austin City Council member Kathie Tovo said she has spoken with residents in her Central Austin district who have voiced concern about the construction process on their blocks. However, Tovo said she believes Google Fiber has worked to improve its lines of communication.

"There are two things that Google Fiber has done right to address those concerns. One is being really proactive and making sure that the council offices and the other city staff have a direct line of contact to someone at Google Fiber who could help resolve any concerns we hear from our constituents," Tovo said. "From time to time, they've also let us know when they're going to be moving into new areas."

Still, the uneven rollout has led to criticism from residents who signed up early and say they still haven't received the service.

Austin City Council member Sabino "Pio" Renteria said his district in Southeast Austin was one of the first areas to receive Google Fiber service, but some areas in his district still don't have access.

"You just can't go around promising people to provide that service and then years later, still not provide that service," Renteria said.

Renteria said he appreciates Google Fiber's community work, but said that as a consumer he has been disappointed with the rollout. Renteria, who lives in the East Cesar Chavez area, said he was one of the first residents who paid the $10 signup fee to get Google Fiber.

"We all put our $10 in, and we haven't heard back from them. What have they done with our 10 bucks?" he said.

Petrovic said he understands residents' frustrations, but said the company has to grow responsibly in each market.

"Part of our balancing act is to make sure when we're out in the field constructing and expanding, that it's in a responsible manner where it's a good experience for us across the board and the community, as well as future customers," Petrovic said.

The company has stopped taking neighborhood signups and is taking a more "prescriptive" approach, Petrovic said.

"Our process now is to really cascade over a neighborhood to make sure that it moves in a nice, steady pattern, and to make sure that we can build a good, viable network," Petrovic said.

Jess Rodriguez, who works for apartment locating service Apartment Experts in South Austin, said the availability of Google Fiber services has been a deciding factor for many of her clients.

"It's one of those things that are a make-or-break for some people," Rodriguez said. "It's absolutely one of those things that people ask for. Now, the fact that AT&T has come out with its own fiber service has made it a little bit easier for us to work around that."

Lisa Walkie, who has been a real estate agent in Austin for more than 20 years, said she distinctly remembers when Google Fiber announced its plans for the city, along with the demand she heard from clients.

However, she said interest in the service has died down.

"It was a thing when it first came out, people were really interested for a year or two afterward," Walkie said. "I don't have anybody coming to me and saying 'Oh, I need Google Fiber to be in a certain area.'"

The 'underconnected'

Google executives say the company has focused on deploying services to areas of the city that it deems "underconnected," or without access to dependable, high-speed Internet, including public housing units, schools and nonprofit facilities.

Lucio said working with nonprofits and underserved communities has always been a priority for Google Fiber.

"Southeast Austin and East Austin are some of the most under-connected communities, so we deliberately began deploying in those communities first," he said.

The company's "Community Connections" program aims to provide free Google Fiber services to about 100 sites for surrounding residents, including Austin Independent School District campuses as well as the city's public library locations.

More than 700 Austin public housing units have also been provided free Google Fiber Internet.

"These types of programs help underscore the type of commitment we have to the community," Lucio said.

City officials selected Community Connections locations after considering more than 300 applications submitted by more than 150 local nonprofits.

John Speirs, program manager for Austin's Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs, said the city looked for ways to empower organizations with the Google Fiber service.

"We were actually looking at organizations that were needing help scale their program, generate larger impact," Speirs said.

As part of the 2013 agreement, Speirs said, Google Fiber would offer free services until 2023, when the agreement is scheduled to expire.

To date, the company has provided free gigabit Internet to 30 of the accepted Community Connections sites, according to the city.

The centers that already have access to the service have seen results with more consistent connection and download speeds.

Linda Webb, principal at Garza Independence High School in central Austin, said Google Fiber has allowed the school to adapt learning to new tools like videos, and gives the school consistent connection and near instant download speed.

Garza Independence is an alternative high school that serves a mix of traditional and nontraditional students. The school relies heavily on technology, and uses Chromebooks for the bulk of course work.

"Today's learners learn differently. They don't want to see pictures. They want to see video and the experience," Webb said.

Aaron Miri, chief information officer at the University of Texas Dell Medical School, said high-speed Internet connectivity plays an important role when it comes to community health.

"We rely on high-speed data networks for research," Miri continued. "We rely on our connection to the Texas Advanced Computing Center. We rely on it to communicate with our patients, especially those who are in rural areas that we are working with, and we rely on carriers to help us when it comes to cellular connectivity and all other sort of connection to the community."

Little impact on gaming

One of the tech sectors that was expected to benefit from Google Fiber access was the video game sector. However, service providers and video game industry experts say there has so far been limited impact on that industry.

"Right now you don't really see any anything that really must have a gigabit. What tends to need that much speed is a number of people doing things in the house all at the same time," said Mike Carrosquilla, senior vice president of operations for Sam Marcos-based Grande Communications.

"If they want to design a game and they want to reach the maximum audience, then they tend to have to, especially the PC," Carrosquilla said. "So they tend to have to design and develop their game for the common denominator of what most people are going to have in their house."

Gordan Walton, president of Austin-based game developer ArtCraft Entertainment, agreed that Google Fiber has had limited effect on the gaming sector.

"There is no one designing games that need that type of bandwidth," Walton said.

Games can cost millions of dollars to design, he said. Restricting the market to only high-speed players reduces sales too much to be cost effective.

"We need to build games for the average user experience, not the most awesome user experience," Walton said.

'Shame the incumbent'

On at least one aspect of Google Fiber's arrival in Austin, there is no disagreement.

The ultra-high-speed service's entrance in the market forced other Internet providers to upgrade their service options.

"Everywhere they went they did do at least what a lot of us thought they were intending to do in the first place, which is a shame the incumbent into providing better service," said Hayes, of the Fiber Optics Association.

Austin's biggest providers now offer a range of speeds, generally between 100 megabits and 1 gigabit per second. By comparison, the Federal Communications Commission recommends broadband Internet speeds of 12 to 25 megabits per second for a household with multiple users.

Hayes said the advantage of any sort of fiber connection is bandwidth and reliability. Fiber connections through fiber optic cables are more efficient at transmitting data than DSL or cable Internet.

Higher Internet speeds enable multiple users to stream, download a video or play games without worrying about lag.

Since December 2013, AT&T has been offering a range of speeds between 100 megabits per second and one gigabit fiber connection.

Spectrum offers a range of speeds between 200 megabits per second and 1 gigabit using a blended fiber, coaxial model. It began offering offering up to 1 gigabit to Austin residents in December 2017, and also doubled minimum Internet speeds in Austin to 200 megabits.

Grande Communications took a more proactive approach to one gigabit Internet, beating Google Fiber as the first Internet service provider in Austin to offer the speed by just a few months. The company offers a coaxial model with speeds between 300 megabits per second and 1 gigabit.

"We've always wanted to be the top Internet speed provider at a good price," said Carrosquilla. "Five years ago, if you're looking at the tea leaves, you're seeing there's all these things you're going to start attaching to the Internet. People are using video over the Internet more and more and these kinds of things they kind of just stacked one on top of the other until you've outpaced the bandwidth you have in the house."

He said customers are increasingly looking towards higher speeds, switching to plans that give them more bandwidth as the need for speed and streaming becomes more popular.

Austin's average Internet speed was 143.66 mbps in 2018, one of the fastest average speeds of any U.S. city, according to Speedtest, which tracks Internet speed and connectivity. Texas speeds averaged 106.98 mbps, while national speeds averaged 95.25 mbps.

Austin's improving bandwidth is making it easier for emerging technology companies to continue to innovate, he said.

"It's good for the infrastructure companies like myself, Google and AT&T to be ahead of the technology providers because if we're ahead of them, then they can push new technologies by virtue of what we've given them the ability to do," Carrosquilla said. "Then we can all move forward that way and the consumer comes in right behind it."

Digital inclusion

Despite issues with the rollout and more limited impact in some business sectors than initially hoped, Google Fiber's entrance into the Austin market has left an undeniable imprint on the city. The company's efforts to work with underserved communities through programs like Community Connections has been a positive, Tovo said.

"As I think about the commitments that Google Fiber made, it was about really working to help us strengthen our efforts toward digital inclusion throughout the city, and from my perspective, they have definitely been great partners in that effort," she said. "To me, that was a very important process that began at the onset of their entrance into the Austin market."

Sepulveda, of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Central Texas, said that Google Fiber has helped Austin residents realize what was possible in terms of high-speed connectivity.

"It was (Google) who ignited the competition," Sepulveda said, "and started the change."

 ©2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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