Want Fiber? Do more to get it, Google exec tells cities

Google has a tip for those who want more high-speed internet options: tell your town to get rid of its fax machine, touch up its maps and streamline the permitting process.

“If you make it easy, we will come. If you make it hard, enjoy your Time Warner Cable,” Milo Medin, VP of Access Services at Google Fiber told a Washington D.C. audience on Tuesday.

Medin cited byzantine permission processes (including a fetish for faxes) and an inability to provide accurate information about infrastructure as prime reasons that hurt some cities’ chances to attract new broadband services.

Currently, Google Fiber is available in Austin, Kansas City and Provo, Utah, while the company is in the process of building out its gigabit-to-the home service in the southern cities Charlotte, Atlanta, and Nashville, and in towns in the Raleigh-Durham area.

It’s unclear though if bumbling bureaucracies are all that’s holding back Google, which has talked a big game about its Fiber networks, but has been slow to roll them out.

Medin, who was speaking on a panel about network deployment, added that some markets in the U.S. are simply uneconomic for internet providers to enter, and that local telephone companies are reluctant to grant access to key telephone pole infrastructure.

He also noted that some owners of multi-unit buildings, where economics of scale are easily available, won’t allow entities like Google Fiber access in the first place.

The upshot for the foreseeable future is a patchwork of different broadband speeds across the country as competitors flock to easy-access markets, while leaving many millions of others (including me in Brooklyn) stuck with monopoly service.

According to Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer, who also spoke on the panel, this situation will require a future wave of policy inducements to produce more broadband offerings.

Google still cagey on FCC net neutrality rules

The panel’s moderator, Ryan Knutson of the Wall Street Journal, tried to pin down Medin on Google’s position on imminent Title II rules, which will reclassify broadband providers as common carriers. But Medin, who ceded his role leading Google Fiber last year, wouldn’t bite.

Medin instead offered platitudes about the virtues of the open internet, without addressing a curious contradiction at the heart of Google’s policy position: the company has been using its trade associations, including Comptel and the Internet Association, to put a big thumb on the scale in favor of Title II rules, yet still won’t support them directly.

Some speculate that Google’s Fiber ambitions are playing a role in this hedge, though others close to the company have dismissed this theory. In late December, Google did tell the FCC in an official filing that, in the event the agency does impose Title II, it should do so in a way that would require incumbents to give access to their utility poles.

Another member of the panel, Michael Weidman, appeared lukewarm about the Title II proposal and warned of agency overreach.

“I can see a two page summary turning into 300 pages of regulation,” said Weidman, CEO of LS Networks, which provides broadband services to towns in the Pacific Northwest.

The panel was part of an event titled the Comptel Competition and Innovation Summit. It was one more piece of a furious burst of political jockeying ahead of the two key FCC votes, set for Thursday, about the Title II rules and on a plan to give cities more freedom to build broadband.

This story was clarified at 4:10pm on Wednesday to note Google Fiber is coming to towns in the Raleigh Durham area, not “Raleigh Durham”

Google Fiber coming to four more cities

Update: Google has since confirmed that it will expand to 18 cities within the four metro areas below, with construction to start “within several months,” according to Dennis Kish, the VP of Google Fiber. It also added that it is continuing to explore bringing fiber to Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Antonio and San Jose, and will have updates on these potential Google Fiber cities later this year. We may add updates after a press conference held at 11:30 PST.

Google is set to announce its gigabit fiber-to-the-home service in Atlanta; Nashville, Tennessee; Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina this week according to the Wall Street Journal. The Journal quoted sources close to the events and said that local news media in Atlanta and Nashville were invited to events on Tuesday and the North Carolina cities were invited to events on Thursday.

These cities are among the nine that Google named last February as under consideration for fiber service. Other cities include San Jose, California and San Antonio, Texas. Currently [company]Google[/company] has a fiber network in Kansas City, Kansas; Kansas City, Missouri; Provo, Utah and Austin, Texas. It has also spurred several of the local incumbents in those and other areas of the country to start laying fiber services.

The Journal article says that the other areas where Google announced interest in building fiber networks should not consider any new network announcements to mean they are out of the running. According to the article:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]Google has told some officials in those cities that it hasn’t ruled them out, and has yet to make a final decision.

David Vossbrink, a spokesman for the city of San Jose, said a Google Fiber official told him Monday that Google would be announcing expansion cities beginning Tuesday. “The message was that these announcements should not be considered the end of the road for the other areas,” Mr. Vossbrink said.
[/blockquote]

As it stands today, Google has every interest in prolonging the threat of its expansion for as long as possible. Even before laying conduit in Austin, it managed to spur AT&T to start upgrading its own network in Austin and pushed a local cable overbuilder to actually start offering gigabit service in limited areas before Google or AT&T actually ever managed to. AT&T actually serves more people I know than Google with gigabit service in Austin, although that’s less a statement of actual homes passed than a measure of where my friends happen to live.

And so when it comes to pushing for faster broadband networks around the country, Google’s best weapon is actually the press release and the threat of action, because it spurs the local government to clear roadblocks and gets incumbents to consider and sometimes actually upgrade their service. That said, I still eagerly await the day the Google truck rolls to my neighborhood in Austin.

3 big questions remain as net neutrality heads to the end game

The FCC has scheduled a February 26 vote on net neutrality, touching off a final flurry of debate over how the agency should oversee the internet. The home stretch will be dominated by politics, public perception and, just maybe, by Google.

The policy positions are clear enough: consumer advocates, and most Democrats, believe the FCC should invoke so-called “Title II” provisions that would require broadband providers to treat websites alike, and stop them for creating special fast lanes for certain sites. The telecom industry, supported by Republicans, counter that such net neutrality rules could harm innovation.

But certain wildcards make the final outcome hard to predict. Here are three unresolved questions to watch in coming weeks:

How far will Republicans go to stop Title II?

A spate of stories in the last week, particularly in the Wall Street Journal and Politico, suggest the GOP could respond with a burn-it-down approach if FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler dares to reclassify broadband providers as public utilities under Title II. The threatened retaliation includes budget cuts to the FCC, new legislation to stamp out Title II or obstructionist antics to prevent Wheeler conducting an important spectrum auction. It’s unclear, however, if the Republicans would actually go through with all of these measures — or if Title II opponents are just raising them in the media as a way to intimidate Wheeler and net neutrality supporters into backing down.

The legislative threats, for instance, may be hollow since President Obama wields a veto pen for two more years, and he has made clear he supports Title II. Meanwhile, a move to scuttle the planned auction could backfire in light of the fact that a recent spectrum sale raised an eye-popping $45 billion for the federal government: would Republicans really forgo that type of money simply to stick it to Wheeler?

But given the increasingly ideological tenor of the debate, anything could happen between now and early February, when Wheeler’s final proposal is likely to be leaked.

What does the public believe (and do they care)?

Republicans have been attempting to equate net neutrality with over-regulation and bumbling bureaucrats. If such rhetoric proves persuasive, it will give Title II opponents the upper-hand in the public debate since policy decisions that smack of big government are unpopular with the public. (It’s true that Title II wouldn’t necessarily be a burden due to so-called forbearance rules, but these sort of details are typically too arcane for political sound bites).

On the other hand, Republicans’ position makes them standard bearers for the likes of Comcast, AT&T and Verizon — companies that oppose Title II, but that are also deeply, deeply unpopular with the American public. This means Democrats and net neutrality debates could sway the debate if they can frame Title II as pro-consumer, rather than as government meddling with markets.

Finally, the outcome will turn on how many people are paying attention in the first place. While the issue has gripped Reddit readers and parts of the Beltway, it’s unclear how many average voters know or care about net neutrality in the first place. The issue gained brief traction last fall thanks to comedian John Oliver and an “internet slow down” day, but that has been waning (the momentum could change again, however, if the topic pops up in the President’s State of the Union address on January 20)

Will Google get on board?

The last time the net neutrality debate crested in 2011, Google was front and center. This time, the search giant is sitting on the sidelines, offering only vague support for net neutrality, and leaving relative small fish like Netflix and Etsy, which lack any real lobbying clout, to lead corporate opposition to Comcast and the rest of the telecom industry.

But last week, Google signaled it might step into the fray after all. In a filing with the FCC, the company pointed out that the agency could use Title II to oblige incumbents to grant access to utility poles and other infrastructure. In practice, this would make it much cheaper for Google to deploy its Fiber technology — and increase the competition for broadband.

While the filing falls short of a full-throated endorsement for Title II, it does provide the FCC with new ammunition if it chooses to defy the telecom industry. And if Google does decide to go all in, its endorsement would likely prove to be a game-changer, leading to a shift in lobbying power, and causing the rest of the tech sector to follow suit in favor of Title II.

The hardest part about Google Fiber isn’t digging ditches, but buying TV rights

You thought that building out all that physical infrastructure is what has been slowing down Google Fiber’s expansion? Think again: Google Fiber head Milo Medin has called TV rights the “the single biggest impediment” to growing Fiber, according to the Wall Street Journal, which also quotes Medin saying that TV has been “the single biggest piece of our cost structure.” The problem is that Google, in order to win over cable customers, has to offer the same channels as the competition. But as a newcomer, it has to pay up to twice as much for some of the rights. No wonder internet TV ventures like the ones from Sony and Dish are struggling to keep costs under control.

FCC’s Wheeler tells towns to fight for faster internet

Should city governments play a bigger role in getting faster internet for their citizens? The FCC’s chairman shared some thoughts at a time when the city of Palo Alto and others are doing the same in a public proceeding.