Google is putting the brakes on its fiber builds. That seems to be the word out of Portland. According to a story in the Oregonian, contractors involved in the project – or at least who think they’re involved – say that construction won’t begin for several months, if ever. Google Fiber hasn’t actually said that Portland is one of its chosen few markets, but the general expectation was that an announcement to that effect would come in the fall.
The explanation a Google spokesman gave to the Oregonian indicates that the company is reevaluating its technology options…
“We’re continuing to explore the possibility of bringing Google Fiber to Portland and other potential cities,” Google wrote. “This means deploying the latest technologies in alignment with our product roadmap, while understanding local requirements and challenges, which takes time.”
In the context of Google’s recent purchase of Webpass, which does most of its business wirelessly, the term “latest technologies” doesn’t point to, say, slimmer fiber cables. More likely, it indicates a cost-benefit analysis is underway. The capital cost of installing fiber in major metro areas is huge, even by Google standards – the Oregonian puts a $300 million price tag on a Portland build.
The city’s bureau of transportation, which controls access to streets, essentially handed Google its standard policy for installing infrastructure in public of right of ways, which doesn’t actually meet Google’s requirements. Some of the discrepancies are small (and a bit disingenuous). For example Google wants a single point of contact for managing permit requests, the city’s response is to give them the standard, blind email address that serves as a one-way inbox.
Other differences are substantial. Portland is telling Google that it’s not going allow a citywide permitting process and it won’t set up any kind of streamlined system unless more staff is hired. And there’s no indication that it’s willing to do so. Google wants to be able to use microtrenching techniques to install fiber where it makes sense, the city says no. Google uses a 2-foot standard for burying fiber and avoiding other utilities, Portland’s response is that its standards are three to five feet. And so on.
Publicly, Google is still saying that Portland is still in the game. That indicates some willingness to compromise, but probably not much. As Google Fiber’s chief, Milo Medin, put it, “we work with communities that make it easy for us. if you make it hard on us, enjoy your cable connection”.
Broadband doesn’t arrive by magic. It needs stuff. Like poles and towers and boxes that don’t necessarily match the neighborhood decor. That simple fact is often lost on nimby homeowners who want to be able to watch four channels of Netflix HD movies at once, but don’t want a small, green box planted anywhere nearby.
Seattle and Portland are two cities where it’s difficult, if not impossible, to install telecoms street furniture. But that might be changing.
Following the midnight exit of Gigabit Seattle, the city’s new mayor wants to make it easier for real companies to upgrade infrastructure. So he’s proposing to end a requirement that broadband providers in general, and CenturyLink in particular, get permission from homeowners before installing boxes in nearby public right of ways. The need to go through hundreds of separate negotiations has effectively blocked broadband improvements. Mayor Ed Murray plans to ask the city council to roll back the individual veto it gave homeowners in 2009, a move CenturyLink claims scuppered 60 upgrade projects affecting 21,000 homes.
Public policy debates in San Francisco and Overland Park, Kansas can easily be hijacked by loud, self-absorbed interests. Not coincidentally, those two cities have sunk to the bottom of the Google Fiber priority list, and other broadband upgrade projects have been stalled. Seattle and Portland, though, still have a choice.