Google Fiber plans to start offering gigabit service in a handful of Austin neighborhoods in December. That’s the word from a press conference held by Google earlier today. Details are sketchy so far – all I could find in the way of coverage this afternoon was a brief write-up on a website published by a local newspaper, Community Impact.
The article, bylined by Joe Lanane, identifies Austin’s South Lamar, Zilker, Bouldin and Travis Heights neighborhoods as ground zero, and quotes Mark Strama, Google’s local manager, as saying…
That is where we will start—that is not where we will finish…Not every part of Austin will get fiber, but all areas will have the opportunity, and we will build in the areas with the highest demand.”
Lanane reported that Strama did not say how much Google is going to charge for the promised gigabit-level service, but that at least one element of the Kansas City package will remain on the table: pay a $300 connection fee and get “free” Internet service – 5 Mbps in KC – for a period of time.
It appears that, as in Kansas City, Google will focus on building out in Austin fiberhoods where a sufficient number of residents have ordered service.
Google has finally broken ground in Austin, Texas for its third fiber-to-the-home project. The announcement came in a blog post, complete with a couple of pictures that show guys boring a hole in the ground for conduit and doing something – it’s not clear what – with a power transformer on a utility pole.
Yes, the guy in the bucket truck is working in the power zone – the area of the the pole reserved for electrical distribution. Communications cables usually run lower, where less rigorously trained (and expensively paid) technicians can operate safely. It’s possible to run fiber optic cables alongside power lines – PG&E does a lot of that here in California – but that’s not where telecoms companies do their work.
I’m not sure what it means (and not ruling out that I’ve just missed the obvious until now). Could be the guy is just doing some routine make-ready checks and needed to take a look at something in the power zone. Or he’s installing an electrical connection for Google’s equipment and whoever wrote the the photo’s caption – “Making room for Google Fiber on Austin’s utility poles” – doesn’t understand the difference.
Or, it could be something more interesting. Like maybe Google is partnering with Austin Energy, the municipal electric system that serves the City of Austin and surrounding areas.
There’s nothing new about municipal electric utilities getting into the fiber business. Several California cities have done so, although not yet for FTTH purposes. But Provo, Utah did, and sold the system to Google. It’s not a novel idea, even for Google.
What would be new, though, is Google working with a city utility department on a completely new overbuild. Taking advantage of (relatively clean?) pole routes owned by a city would lower expenses by a ton; having the work done and the system operated by company with Google’s cost structure and scale would drop the tab even further.
Wasting no time in working through Google Fiber’s checklist, the San Antonio city council approved a master lease agreement yesterday that would give Google the right to build 40 or so fiber huts – 12 by 26 foot shelters for the electronic equipment that powers fiber-to-the-home systems – on city property at an annual lease rate of $2,250 per site.
“It will probably be difficult to overstate the importance of this vote – akin to turning on the lights in San Antonio” said councilman Ron Nirenberg. “We understand how our nation and communities across the world struggle with the digital divide, providing economic opportunities for people in the twenty-first century. This is one huge step forward for us as a city.”
A Google executive was on hand for the meeting, but wouldn’t say whether they planned to take the deal. San Antonio is one of 34 cities that made the cut in the latest round of the Google Fiber beauty contest. Besides friendly master lease terms, San Antonio has a couple other pluses: it’s a short Texas drive down I–35 from Austin, where Google already has plans to build, and there’s a municipal electric utility that owns 86% of the utility poles in town. AT&T owns the other 14%, according to a story in the San Antonio News Express.
The odds of attracting FTTH investment depends on a lot more than luck.
AT&T was jolted into finding a fiber-to-the-home business case in Austin after Google Fiber said it was making the Texas capital and surrounding suburbs its next stop after Kansas City. But regardless of how it happened, AT&T is now singing in the FTTH choir. According to Fierce Telecom, CEO Randall Stephenson told an investment conference audience that the initiative, branded “Gigapower” is ready to roll out in Dallas this summer and other cities where it makes sense…
The market adoption and the performance of our U-verse Gigapower technology has been very, very encouraging…in fact, we’re so encouraged that we want to begin taking this to other communities. What we’re doing in cities and municipalities where we can get the terms and conditions we got in Austin we’re redirecting VIP investment to fiber to the home deployment.
The terms and conditions Stephenson is talking about are, in large part, the same concessions granted to Google Fiber, which are detailed in its City Checklist. Things like solid information about and access to local broadband infrastructure, and rapid and friction-free approval of permit applications and construction plans.
Even if AT&T were to spend all $14 billion of its notional VIP capital budget on FTTH, it would only be able to upgrade a small fraction of its huge network. And in reality, the real number won’t be close to that. So AT&T will be selective and, like Google, will base its decisions in large part on the costs cities add to projects. The lower the regulatory cost, the better the chances in the gigabit swwepstakes, whether it’s Google or AT&T or one of their competitors that’s picking the winners.
AT&T will, it says, expand the reach of its fiber-to-the-home network in Austin, Texas. The company claimed, in a breathless press release, that uptake of its 300 Mbps service has been more energetic than expected…
“Austin’s response to our blazing fast broadband and enhanced TV services has been incredible and validates why we decided to roll this out in Austin first,” said Dahna Hull, vice president and general manager, Austin, AT&T Services Inc. “Austinites consume data at rates 15 percent to 20 percent higher than the average U-verse user, and the overwhelming adoption of our new U-verse High Speed Internet 300 broadband service confirms that this community also values time and speed.”
Keep a healthy reserve of scepticism in the back of your mind, though. You can’t completely trust press releases that use words like “incredible” and “overwhelming” and don’t give any hard numbers about households reached or subscribers signed up. AT&T isn’t saying anything about how many subs it has for its 300 Mbps service (supposedly to be 1 gig service eventually). The only data point it’s giving out regarding the reach of the FTTH network is that it’s “now available to tens of thousands of customer locations in Austin and surrounding communities”. Since “tens of thousands” can mean, say, 20 thousand and the Austin market has more than 700 thousand households, that’s not very impressive absent real numbers.
The one certain winner so far is Google: AT&T made Austin its first gigabit (or whatever) market because Google put out a press release saying it was the next stop for its FTTH venture. AT&T’s objective is to protect its turf. Google’s objective is to stimulate investment in high speed consumer Internet access. Whoever that does it. Whatever it takes.
“In Kansas City, my crews don’t wait for inspectors, the inspectors wait for them”, said Milo Medin, the head of Google Fiber. “We work with communities that make it easy for us. if you make it hard on us, enjoy your cable connection.”
Medin spoke last week to organisations funded by the California Emerging Technology Fund at a meeting hosted by Google in Mountain View. His message was that upgrading broadband infrastructure, improving service and lowering costs is an economic driver that should be proactively supported by policy makers and public agencies. “Cities and states can have policies that make building easier or harder”, he said.
Another example he cited is Austin, Texas, where the city says it’s adding ten new staffers to the permitting department to handle the expected flood of paperwork as Google’s fiber build out ramps up there.
The City of Provo in Utah certainly made it easier for Google to offer service, turning over ownership of a city-built but still incomplete fiber-to-the-home service for nearly nothing. Medin said Google Fiber’s first official customer in Provo was hooked up last week, as the transition from city ownership continues. The company is also opening a storefront Fiber Space in Provo, where curious customers can come and see what a gigabit connection would do for them.
One thing it’s already doing for people in Provo is lowering Internet pricing all around, as competition heads towards a boil. According to Medin, Comcast is offering 250 Mbps down/50 Mbps up for $70 per month and 105 Mbps triple play for $120 per month, matching Google’s price points if not its gigabit.
“Do any of you have a cable operator offering that in your area?” he asked.