A decade ago, Google had big plans to shake up the broadband market in the United States, investing in a massive fiber network that would challenge incumbents like Comcast and AT&T. Those plans stumbled in 2016 as the CEO departed and the division laid off half its staff.
Now, with a new CEO, Google Fiber is apparently ready to hit the gas pedal again, announcing plans to expand to five new states in the next several years.
That should be good news for broadband customers in those states, who mostly lack any competition to established networks run by cable networks with a de facto monopoly. But I'm skeptical of Google Fiber's ability to deliver, based on my personal experience.
Last year, I moved to Atlanta, one of the first cities in the Google Fiber network and still a showcase for the service. In the Midtown apartment where I lived for a few months, I had Google Fiber service. It was fast, reliable, and inexpensive.
Then I moved to the building next door, literally 80 feet away. A fiber line runs right past the building's front door, but when I type my new address into the Google Fiber website, it tells me fiber service isn't available.
So what's the problem? My previous apartment was built four years ago, which meant the developer was able to tap into the fiber network and run it through the entire building as part of the initial construction. For tenants, connecting to fiber was literally as easy as plugging a Google Wi-Fi router into the pre-wired Ethernet port and signing in with a Google account.
The condo I moved to, however, was built in 2001, when Google was still a brash search upstart, a few years before its IPO and more than a decade before it would attempt anything as ambitious as Google Fiber. (Weirdly, when I entered the address of the building across the street, which was built a few years later than ours but still a few years before Google Fiber launched, the response from the web form was slightly different: "Google Fiber is coming to Atlanta." Uh, really?)
In those days, broadband arrived through a DSL or cable connection. Both telephone networks and cable TV have been around long enough that their infrastructure is pretty much ubiquitous in modern U.S. housing. So, yes, my building (which is not that old, really, but might as well be a cave dwelling as far as broadband is concerned) has both coaxial cable and phone jacks in every room.
That coaxial cable offers a connection to the internet through Xfinity (nee Comcast). Because Google Fiber is a major presence in the area, Xfinity's terms and prices are extremely competitive. Indeed, I've had reliable service via my cable modem, with 1200-Mbps download speeds that rival the performance of Google Fiber's network. Upload speeds, unfortunately, are a tiny fraction of what they are on the Google Fiber network, which means activities like doing backups to the cloud take roughly 20 times longer than they would on a fiber network that offers symmetrical download and upload speeds. Oh, and did I mention that Xfinity has monthly data caps, while Google Fiber doesn't?
Last April, when I asked a Google Fiber spokesperson how to get our building connected, they recommended that I contact our property manager or HOA and ask them to fill out an online form:
We definitely are working to connect more buildings in Atlanta (and all our Google Fiber areas!) to fast, reliable internet. Property managers who are interested in getting their buildings connected can fill out the form at google.com/fiber/properties. That creates a ticket for us here at Google Fiber, alerting us to the building's interest in our service. They should expect to hear back from one of our multi-tenant team members within a couple of weeks, who will assess whether Google Fiber is available in the area and whether the building is constructible. If so, they'll discuss the next steps for wiring the building to connect residents to Google Fiber service.
You should expect a response "within a couple of weeks," they said. Sounds great, but when our property manager filled out that form, they received no response, and repeated follow-ups via the same form have been met with absolute silence. (I've asked a spokesperson for Google Fiber if there's a way to escalate these requests or if there's a problem with handling submissions sent by way of this form. I'll update this post if I hear back.)
I shouldn't be surprised. One reason cable companies have such persistent monopolies is because expanding service requires massive investments in labor and physical infrastructure. Retrofitting older buildings is one of the most capital-intensive activities.
If we had a single family home, getting a fiber connection might not be so difficult. But getting connections inside a multi-dwelling unit is much more complicated. It requires an agreement from the owners of the apartment building or the management of a condo complex, followed by an inspection and then some construction.
To handle the logistics of getting service to multiple households in a single building, you need a Network Demarc Point (NDP) outside the building and then a fiber distribution hub inside the building, with fiber distribution terminals and conduit throughout the building. For details on exactly what's involved, see the Google Fiber Construction Stages and Constructions Guidelines documents.
But none of that can happen at all if the good folks at Google Fiber won't respond to requests from potential customers. For now, anyway, it looks like everyone in my building is stuck with a high-cable, no-fiber diet.
Update: Sometimes complaining out loud gets a response. After this article was published, I heard back from Google, which acknowledged it has had some issues with "lead generation management." A Google Fiber representative is now in contact with building management. We'll see what happens next.