Fiber Optic cables connected to optic ports and UTP, Network cables connected to ethernet ports.
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Whatever happened to Google Fiber?

By Richard Arneson

Think back ten (10) years. If you can’t, I’ll do it for you. LeBron James broadcast live which team he would eventually dismember. South Africa hosted the World Cup and the planet was introduced to the vuvuzela, a noisemaker that all but ruined the TV coverage. And Tiger Woods returned to golf after his soon-to-be ex-wife bounced a 7-iron off his head a few times. And who could forget that Google Fiber launched in Kansas City—the first city of many planned—that would help bridge the digital gap between the haves and have nots.

What made Google Fiber sound so enticing was that it would extend fiber optics to the curbs of citizens who happened to live in one (1) of the six (6) initial cities the company hand-picked to serve. And don’t forget the speeds Google Fiber promised—up to a gigabit per second, which was a hundred times faster than the average speeds of the day. What could go wrong? It was going to be digital nirvana.

The National Broadband Plan

In 2009, Internet Service Providers’ (ISPs) plans to upgrade and expand their infrastructures stalled out. In the previous few years, ISPs had steadily provided consumers with internet innovations, including DSL and cable-based connectivity. And Verizon had rolled out FiOS, the first iteration of fiber-based connectivity to the home. The providers didn’t feel enough of a competitive threat to pump billions into their infrastructures. Most consumers were happy, at least the ones who had access to broadband. But the government wasn’t.

In 2009, the National Broadband Plan (NBP) was enacted to help ensure at least 100 million Americans had access to internet speeds of 100 Mbps by 2020. It shoved ISPs into build mode, and the NBP checked that 2020 goal off its list in 2016.

In response to the NBP, Google conducted research and submitted it to NBP stakeholders that showed the economic and competitive impact that not having a next-gen infrastructure would mean to a variety of areas, most notably smart grids, tele-health and distance-based learning. Apparently, Google ate its own dog food. They approached cities about participating in fiber-based, gigabit testbed networks. The response was staggering—Google had hoped they’d get a couple dozen cities take the bait. Instead, they received interest from over a thousand. They had backed their way into a market.

Big Bang Disruption. It’s a thing

Google Fiber benefited from what’s called the Big Bang Disruption model, in which innovative solutions meet a marketplace that’s ready for them. As a result, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) heard the banging on the door and began pumping money into building out their infrastructures faster than they had planned—a perfect example of technological disruption. And there was IoT looming on the horizon. Yes, faster speeds would be needed. Local governments even took notice and tried to accommodate ISPs by making it easier for them to enter new markets, and incumbent ones to more easily expand without all the red tape.

Google decided which cities to build into based on, basically, how easy they were to work with. They weren’t looking for tax breaks or financial incentives. They just wanted cities who would be more accommodating when it came time to dig up roads and sidewalks to lay fiber. They wanted more streamlined permitting processes and no political conflicts. They knew that more red tape meant more costs. They selected Kansas City, MO., Austin, TX., Salt Lake City, UT., Provo, UT, Atlanta, GA. and Charlotte, N.C. They added another five (5) until Google announced, just five (5) years later in 2016, that they were suspending further deployment.

A failure? For Google, maybe, but not for the rest of us

You can still get Google Fiber in eleven (11) cities, but its deployment fell well short of its initial prediction—fifty (50) cities. While it has all the earmarks of a failure, what it has provided the public at large can be described as an unmitigated success.

Google Fiber prompted ISPs to build next-gen networks much sooner than they had planned. Google would announce expansion plans to include a city, and incumbent ISPs serving that city would soon broadcast plans to pump dollars into the infrastructure and deliver higher speeds and lower prices to its residents.

And Google Fiber exposed the level of government red tape that prevented ISPs from upgrading existing networks or allow competitors to enter the market. Cities began to examine their own processes and procedures, knowing that without improvements ISPs would simply find other communities to serve. Those reforms resulted in better served residents, happier ISPs, more desirable accommodations to attract new businesses, and better PR. Win-win.

And don’t forget what all of this means to 5G, which we’re eagerly awaiting. Rental costs for pole attachments and rights of way, which used to be seen by city governments as nice little revenue streams, have been re-examined. They know if they’re seen as getting in the way of the people and their 5G, they’ll be shredded in the press. And at the polls.

Questions about Digital Transformation? Talk to the experts

If you’d like to learn about how GDT’s design engineers and solutions architects turn traditional, legacy infrastructures into innovative, agile machines that make customers more competitive, help them bring applications to market faster, and deliver a superior customer experience, contact them at SolutionsArchitects@gdt.com or at Engineering@gdt.com. They’d love to hear from you.

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