Google Fiber – Is it worth it?
Two cities in east Atlanta this week are considering agreements that elected officials hope will help deliver Google Fiber internet to the area.
The cities of Avondale Estates and Decatur meet regularly to coordinate their efforts with other cities identified by the company. Mayor Jim Baskett in Decatur and Mayor Ed Rieker in Avondale Estates sing Google’s praises at every turn. The city of Decatur has asked residents to send photos, videos and drawings “telling us how much you want Google Fiber in Decatur.”
It’s clear the city’s elected leaders want the service badly, seeing it as an economic boon and a point of pride. But is all the rah rah worth it? Decaturish called up the cities of Provo, Utah, Kansas City, Kan., and Austin, Texas, to find out.
Elected officials in these cities already receive or are in line to receive the service. They say the Google has given them an economic development tool and made the local market competitive. Are there any drawbacks? Not really, the elected officials say.
“My biggest problem here in my city is the city doesn’t have any patience. They want it and they want it now,” Provo Mayor John Curtis said. “My single biggest problem has been keeping expectations realistic with people.”
Going down the list
Avondale Estates and Decatur were among eight cities in the metro area that the company identified as targets for future expansion. The agreements being considered by Decatur and Avondale Estates at their April 21 meetings are among the steps all the cities are taking to meet a May 1 deadline to respond to the internet search giant’s checklist.
During their respective meetings, Avondale Estates commissioners will consider approving a ‘hut license agreement’ that will allow the company to place some of its infrastructure on city-owned property. The city of Decatur commissioners are considering something a little broader than that. Decatur Commissioners are being asked to approve a resolution to “Support efforts to bring Google Fiber to this community” and give City Manager Peggy Merriss the authority to execute documents needed to complete Google’s checklist.
The company offers a tantalizing prize: ridiculously fast internet, 100 times quicker than the broadband we’re used to seeing here in Atlanta. But it’s not just speed that sets the company’s internet service apart. It’s also the offer of symmetrical upload and download speeds. Under the standard broadband model, internet service providers usually throttle the upload speed at a rate that’s far lower than the download speed. Google Fiber would offer upload and download speeds that are the same, or close to it.
Then and now
Joe Reardon was Mayor in Kansas City in 2011 when Google announced the city would be the first in the nation to receive its fiber internet service. He noted it was a “slightly different process” back then. Kansas City was selected from more than 1,000 applicants. He said the city offered the company expedited permitting and access to right of way. The company is installing the service by grouping the city into “fiberhoods,” neighborhoods that meet a quota of pre-registrations determined by Google.
Reardon said the service already has spurred innovation within Kansas City.
“One of the cool things that’s happened is one of the first fiberhoods that was installed attracted young people that have created start up businesses,” Reardon said. “There’s 30 of them in the Kansas City Startup Village.”
Reardon said each city’s process will be unique. In Provo, it was different in a significant way. Unlike Kansas City, Provo already had installed its own fiber optics network, meaning much of the necessary infrastructure was in place.
Provo could never find a way to make its fiber optics service profitable, Curtis said.
“Nobody ever was able to put together a model where expenses didn’t exceed revenues by a large amount,” he said.
Whereas Provo can patch a pot-hole and build a road with the best of them, the city really had no knack for fiber internet.
“We were really pleased that Google came along to take it over,” Curtis said. “We closed the deal last July. They came in and left the fiber in the ground and replaced everything else.”
Now Curtis said the city regularly sees “dozens of Google trucks a day installing just as hard and fast as they can.”
Laura Morrison, a city councilwoman in Austin, Texas, said that city is still in the design and permitting phase of receiving its Google Fiber service. Morrison said community support and enthusiasm were essential in bringing the company into the area. She said the local newspaper ran an editorial in favor of it.
“From my interactions with them, the things that attracted them to Austin were the fact that the community was very interested and enthused about having Google Fiber, (and) that the city, us as a government, that we saw that there were many benefits to them coming and that we were willing to invest in a relationship,” she said.
Competition quickly heats up
So how fast is that internet?
“It’s everything that they say it is: 138 down, 150 up,” Curtis said. “That’s delightful, but what a lot of people haven’t talked as much about is the TV package that comes with it. If you like to watch sports at all, you’ll enjoy the TV package.”
Reardon also said the internet service is for real.
“I can tell you from personal experience the speed of the internet is unbelievable. Phenomenal,” he said. “You can watch Netflix on a stream and you’re going to get the 1080-p and it’s never going to lag.”
Officials in all three cities say the pressure of having Google Fiber in the neighborhood has caused other internet service providers to get competitive.
“They’re lowering the price, increasing the speed and increasing the channels for $100,” Curtis said.
Morrison said the prospect of Google Fiber in Austin “definitely ratchets up the competition.”
“AT&T now of course is offering fiber and that didn’t happen before Google Fiber came,” she said.
‘Make it work’
Not everyone in these cities is as enthusiastic as their elected representatives. The Kansas City Star recently reported that “Google fiber disrupts as it modernizes” the city.
The story said “A crew, hired by Google Inc. to make way for the company’s overhead fiber optic lines, transformed the neighborhood ginkgo trees into tall stumps one morning last summer,” a line that might be worrisome to Decaturites who love their trees.
Even though Avondale Estates City Commissioners are clearly on the Google bandwagon, they did have some questions about the Google hut license during the commission’s April 17 work session. City Manager Clai Brown, talking in his thick Southern drawl, explained to the commissioners what a Google hut is.
“The hut is sort of the brains of the entire system,” he said. “It’s thousands of glass fibers going through the hut. A hut will do 20,000 homes.”
One point of negotiation is how much the cities will charge Google to lease the city’s property. Brown said the company wanted each city to quote a price per square foot, but there isn’t widespread agreement among them about what a fair price should be.
“We do two conference calls every single week, trying to be unified,” Brown said. “Nobody could come up with a price to charge Google for the lease. Some say $25. Some say $20. Decatur and myself is $10 range. Google has proposed $3 per square foot.”
Brown said Google insisted the cities charge them something, saying the company doesn’t want to receive a benefit other carriers wouldn’t receive. Commissioners said Brown should offer the company between $2 and $5 per square foot.
Commissioner Randy Beebe said his concern had to do with aesthetics.
“These things are big and ugly,” he said during the meeting. “Are we going to have them in town?”
Brown and Mayor Rieker said it is likely that Avondale residents would receive their service from a hut located in Decatur. Avondale Estates has population of about 3,000.
Curtis, the mayor of Provo, said the benefits of having the fiber service are worth it.
“I would encourage every city to make it work,” he said.