Tag Archives: microtrenching

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.

Microtrenching fail drives Google Fiber out of Louisville

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Jack rabbit 625

Google Fiber is bailing of Louisville, Kentucky because it screwed up its fiber build there. In an attempt to move quickly and save money, Google forgot the iron law of engineering:

Good, fast, cheap. Pick any two.

Google went with fast and cheap, and it turned out not so good. The problem was microtrenching, and its little brother, nanotrenching. Which particular techniques were the problem isn’t clear, but the result is. According to Google’s blog post yesterday…

We’re not living up to the high standards we set for ourselves, or the standards we’ve demonstrated in other Fiber cities. We would need to essentially rebuild our entire network in Louisville to provide the great service that Google Fiber is known for, and that’s just not the right business decision for us.

The lessons we’ve learned in Louisville have already made us better in our other Google Fiber cities. We’ve refined our micro trenching methods and are seeing good outcomes elsewhere.

But it’ll cost too much to rebuild its plant in Louisville, so it’s adios. According to a story on WDRB.com (via a link on Google’s blog post), the epoxy compound that Google was using to fill up the shallow slits it dug in streets for its fiber – that’s how microtrenching is done – failed. The fix they planned to use was to go back, scrape the epoxy out of the slits and refill them with asphalt. Reading between the lines of Google’s blog post, that technique didn’t work any better – the implication is that Google would have to rip everything out and start over again if it wanted to keep doing business in Louisville.

Google says it going to move ahead with fiber projects in other markets. The list includes Kansas City, Austin, Provo, Charlotte, Atlanta, Orange County, Salt Lake City, Raleigh-Durham, Nashville, Huntsville and San Antonio.

The list doesn’t include San Francisco, or any of the other Bay Area cities where it’s relying on Webpass, an Internet service provider – primarily wireless – it acquired in 2017.

Prospective microtrenching is one more tool in the muni broadband kit

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Measuring the benefit.

The idea behind open trench and shadow conduit policies is that you can minimise damage to roads and maximise the future benefit of fiber by doing everything at once, rather than tearing up pavement whenever a project comes along. Even if you don’t need the conduit right away, the small marginal cost of putting conduit into an open trench could be offset just by the money saved on road maintenance.

A rule of thumb is that cutting into a street reduces its remaining lifespan by 10%. With the details of a particular project, a civil engineer can turn that into a dollar amount, but given that road projects routinely run into the seven and eight figure range, a little bit of eventual fiber can pay for miles of idle conduit.

The lifespan clock more or less re-sets after a street is resurfaced, which is why you sometimes see underground work being done immediately prior. One idea that’s been kicked around is to routinely use microtrenching techniques to install fiber just ahead of scheduled re-surfacing. It becomes a little more complicated with fiber that shallow – typically the old surface is ground down some – but it’s manageable if you know where the fiber is. And have a splicing crew on hot standby.

Even so, microtrenching is expensive compared to empty conduit. But when road resurfacing happens on a predictable timetable, there’s an opportunity to plan ahead and see if there’s a business case that can be made for prospectively installing fiber on a case by case basis.