Louisville’s Google project failed, but it was experimental success

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Microtrench

“Have a healthy disregard for the impossible", is a quote attributed to Google co-founder Larry Page. It’s a philosophy that took Google from two Stanford grads in a garage to being, on some days, the biggest company on the planet. It’s an acknowledgement that people aren’t always – or even usually – correct when they say you can’t do something. And it’s acceptance that sometimes the experts will be right.

(N.B. “Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done and why. Then do it!”, with thanks to Robert Heinlein).

It’s conventional wisdom in the tech world, where failure is treated as an apprenticeship. But it’s 180-degrees from the practice of politics, where adversaries are quick to thrust spears of blame into the tiniest chink in a project plan. That’s not the case, for the most part, in Louisville, Kentucky, where Google tried to build a fiber network with an extremely shallow microtrenching technique that didn’t work. The attitude in Louisville seems to be more Silicon Valley than House of Cards.

According to a story in Gizmodo (h/t to Fred Pilot at Eldo Telecom Blog for the pointer) Google tried for months to fix things, then decided to abandon the project because the technique simply didn’t work…

Google Fiber got something out of its time here. It learned that nanotrenching—the cost-saving process of burying fiber optic cables just two inches underground—was a bust. “We currently do not have plans that call for 2 inch trenches, our primary specifications are focused on going deeper,” a Google Fiber spokesperson said in an email.

“It is such a shame to think that we wouldn’t be having any of this conversation if they would have dug their little holes two inches deeper,” [Councilman Brandon] Coan said.

Gizmodo got the headline on its story wrong, though. It wasn’t Google’s experiment in Louisville that “failed”. The company tested a hypothesis and proved it false. That’s a successful experiment. What failed was a venture where both Louisville and Google invested their reputations.

Google is none the worse for it: there’s no shortage of cities still eager to give it a go if Google ever restarts fiber construction in a big way. To its credit, Louisville’s political leadership remains upbeat about the experience, judging from the Gizmodo story. Political types will dwell on the failure and ignore the success. But whiz kids in search of a garage, and the tech investors who back them, will remember Louisville’s success.