The Who, What and Why of Google Fiber

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Having your city selected for deployment of Google Fiber has many of the same subsequent effects as the development of a municipally owned network.

Google-Fiber-2Photo credit: UCFFool (Mario at Google Fiber – Kansas City, MO), via Wikimedia Commons

Google has built itself securely into our everyday lives. Between Google mail, Google chat and Google maps, few of us get through the day without relying on one of this gargantuan company’s products or programs. Most people probably default to the company’s website when they are searching for anything on the internet. In fact, the word Google is nearly ubiquitous with the web.

However, tucked into the Google empire’s large portfolio is one of its more discreet and misunderstood programs: Google Fiber. What is it? How does it differ from or compliment a municipal broadband network? Most importantly, why is Google doing this? As part of our Muni Broadband blog series, we will unpack the role of Google Fiber in the broadband game and explore the ways that it supports cities in their efforts to expand internet access.

Google Fiber provides broadband internet service to a small (yet increasing) number of cities throughout the United States. The initial locality for the service was chosen through a competition, in which cities and towns submitted applications and initiated various sorts of campaigns to garner support.

On March 30, 2011, Google announced Kansas City, Kan. as the first recipient of the fiber to the premises service. Subsequently the service was expanded to Kansas, City, Mo., and in 2013 several suburban communities in the Kansas City area were announced, along with Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah.  In February 2014, Google announced 34 additional prospective cities which they invited to be a part of a collaborative process to explore deployment options.

Google offers households and businesses three tiers of service: 1) Free broadband internet service with 5 Mb/s download speed[1] and 1 Mb/s upload speed; 2) 1 Gb/s (upload and download speed) broadband internet service for approximately $70.00 per month; and 3) 1Gb/s broadband internet service with television service for approximately $120.00 per month.

Having your city selected for deployment of Google Fiber has many of the same subsequent effects as the development of a municipally owned network. It ensures that people have access to quality, high speed internet that is affordable, and it spurs economic development. Kansas City saw a surge of start-ups and entrepreneurs following the deployment of the service, including Homes for Hackers, an incubator that hosts and supports entrepreneurs with Fiber connections so that they can develop their new business ideas. That’s why cities are so eager to compete for the chance to get it. Google pays for the infrastructure investment, and the community reaps all of the glorious benefits of municipally owned broadband without the payout and management responsibility.

Google’s choice to host their services in particular cities hinges on several variables. Some cities have existing infrastructure-pipes and fibers already in the ground that make them attractive prospects. Geography always plays into the cost-benefit analysis of prospective infrastructure projects. Another concern is whether right-of-way and other administrative negotiations will go smoothly.

Because the types of agreements and negotiations necessary for Google Fiber projects to run smoothly become increasingly complex in large cities, some have argued that there is less likelihood that we will see Google Fiber deploy in cities like Chicago or New York. Some cities, like Washington, D.C., have non-compete agreements with large telecom companies that keep away Google Fiber as well as the possibility of opening up existing high-speed fiber to residents.

While it’s a shame to think about the fact that some communities might have a better chance at securing these services than others, the ultimate remaining question is not where but why. Why is Google, a multi-billion dollar corporation, investing in pricey broadband infrastructure on which they will see virtually no return? In the organization’s vast portfolio, Google Fiber is one of the smaller projects. However, Google’s announcements of new service locations are impactful, especially with communications service providers (CSPs) who are already selling internet and television service in these areas.

AT&T, for instance, has committed to comparable, high speed service in several of the prospective Fiber locations announced by Google, and some speculate that this might just be the tech giant’s plan. By deploying high speed, low cost broadband service in communities across the nation, Google is both raising the bar for existing service and injecting more competition into the market.

Despite the enthusiasm surrounding these deployments, they tend to move very slowly, mostly because this is new territory for both Google and its host cities. Kansas City saw departures from the originally promised deployment timeline, and Austin promoted the service for over a year before residents were able to begin signing up.

Additionally, new roll outs of service have forced Google to squarely face the reality of the digital divide. In Kansas City, Google found that only the more affluent neighborhoods were signing up for the service, and that there were large swaths of the city without internet access. To address this disparity, Google hired a field team to promote the new service to low subscribing communities and initiated several programs and grant funding opportunities around digital literacy. With new opportunities come new challenges, and Google has worked with cities to overcome some of the initial hurdles.

In a way, Google Fiber has the same impact on the broadband game in communities as the build out of municipal broadband networks. It offers better, more affordable service, deflects the power of telecom monopolies and duopolies, and promotes economic development. It is no wonder that cities across the country are begging for the service. The difference is the seemingly philanthropic position of the service provider, Google. Perhaps Fiber is meant to catalyze improved internet services in the market, or perhaps Google is trying to dominate the connectivity market. Either way, cities win.

[1] Free for up to 10 years per address.

Nicole DuPuis bio photoAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.