Answers to the three big questions Google Fiber ducked on the way south

28 January 2015 by Steve Blum
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Along with a posse of elected officials, Google held four press events in southern states yesterday to formally announce the metro areas and cities picked for fiber to the home builds:

  • Atlanta, Georgia and the nearby cities of Avondale Estates, Brookhaven, College Park, Decatur, East Point, Hapeville, Sandy Springs and Smyrna.
  • Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • The Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina metro area, including those two cities plus Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Garner and Morrisville.
  • Nashville-Davidson, Tennessee.

The next step is to do the necessary, detailed engineering work, a process that’s expected to take several months to complete. Google is already taking online expressions of interest from residents in the four metro areas, and will be hiring local staff to see the projects through.

For the rest of us, that leaves three big questions, none of which were well addressed yesterday…

Why were those 18 cities in those four metros picked?

No specifics, but a typical answer, or at least as much answer as we’re going to get for now, was given by Michael Slinger, Google Fiber’s business operations director, at the Raleigh event

Last year we began working with these cities to explore the possibility of bringing a super faster Internet and TV service to their residents and small businesses. The local leaders you see beside me rose to the challenge. They brought passion, commitment and dedication to the fiber exploration process, and because of their hard work we’ve chosen the Triangle for this major infrastructure investment.

Another way to answer it: North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee don’t have, for example, stroppy environmentalists and coin-operated permit counters like California, or pole attachment problems like Texas, or tax overhangs like Oregon. Google has said time and again it will follow the path of least resistance.

What about Silicon Valley, San Antonio, Portland, Salt Lake City and Phoenix?

Google execs dodged that question yesterday. A typical comment came from Google Fiber general manager Kevin Lo, who was quoted in the San Antonio Express News as saying that the city is still in the running

“Super-fast broadband has been a big priority in San Antonio for years. This is a big reason why we included San Antonio in our announcement last February, when we kicked off an effort to explore bringing Google Fiber to nine metro areas across the country,” he said. “Since then, we’ve been working with city leaders, gathering information from local roads, underground utilities paths, even permitting processes. The cities have all been great partners throughout this entire process”.

Translation: we liked the answers we got in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. Yours, not so much.

Lo wouldn’t be pinned down to a time frame, explaining to USA Today “we are really focused on doing a great job in these cities”, and telling the Portland Oregonian “we aren’t saying no”. Which, as the Oregonian points out, isn’t yes either.

Clearly, there’s some deficiency – relative or absolute – that Google found in the five losing metros. Getting construction underway in the four winners will demand a lot of attention, leaving little time for do-overs. My guess is that Google will put the preliminary work it did in those five metros on a shelf, and get back to it sometime in the second half of this year. In the meantime, it’ll be up to the people in those communities to figure out what they need to do to get to yes, and then do it. They’ll have a second chance, but it will be brief and final.

We want to get on the we’ll-get-back-to-you list. How do we do that?

Google has offered no pathway for other cities and metro areas to join the list of prospects and hasn’t said it’s going any further than it already has. Wall Street has been kind so far, but if Google Fiber’s costs start looking significant – relative to the rest of the company – the company’s share price will tank. Google is approaching the point where it either goes big or goes home.

That said, there is a difference between a slim chance and none, so cities that want to join the parade need to look at Google’s checklist, review the publicly available materials that were submitted in response, and start putting their own policy, procedure and asset packages together. All the while keeping in mind that Google isn’t the only option.