Google Stumbling on Fiber Innovation?

A year into its fiber deployment, Google is apparently finding it harder to innovate in the fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) space than it expected. (I say "apparently" because, despite attempts to question Google folks directly on the question, my information sources are all second-hand.)

When Google conducted a nationwide search for the location in which to build a fiber-to-the-home network, municipalities across the U.S. bowed and scraped at the feet of the Internet giant for the opportunity to be the place where Google would show the telcos and cablecos of the world how it was done with a fiber optic network that would put the rest to shame.

Instead, Google seems to be discovering what those other network operators already knew – that building a FTTP network is a painstaking process and that there is no getting around the time and effort required to connect each home or business to the fiber distribution network. Even given the many perks provided to Google by Kansas City, the lucky site chosen as the first Google fiber deployment, Google is still spending about what others have spent to connect each customer, and taking about the same amount of time to do so, says Teresa Mastrangelo, principal analyst with Broadband Trends LLC and a longtime observer of the local access market.

While Google has been no more forthcoming to her about what is going on with its fiber builds, Mastrangelo has combed the public records of its fiber build activity and finds very little is different for Google than for other FTTP builders.

"There's nothing all that different about what they are doing – they are using every installation method used by others," Mastrangelo says. "They are allocating six hours per customer for an install and averaging three to four hours. And they aren't whipping out 500 customers a day – it's much slower than that."

Thus far, Google has filed one patent application for a new method of microtrenching, or burying small cable drops more efficiently to reach customers' homes, but that's about it, says Mastrangelo.

Google also disappointed many by backing off their plan to have an open access network, she says. The company is currently under fire for adopting very traditional Terms of Service that prohibit customers from connecting their own servers to the network, as noted in this Wired article. On its own customer message boards, Google clarifies that the prohibition only applies to servers that support commercial or illegal activities, but many consumers still see this as a change in attitude from what Google espoused before it built its own network.

In short, Google is looking very much like a traditional FTTP provider – albeit with lots of freebies from Kansas City thrown in, like power, rights-of-way, labor, etc. that has to be a boost to the business case.

Mastrangelo notes that Google also hasn't stepped up to partner with third-party applications developers to show what new and innovative services can be delivered over a 1 Gig network. Instead it is talking about developing its own services for small businesses, hence the concern about customers attaching commercial servers to Google fiber.

There could be more to come from Google as its fiber buildout begins to scale and the second buildout occurs in Austin. Certainly the initial rollout plan, including the creation of fiberhoods and allowing pre-build sales to dictate where fiber goes first, seemed innovative enough. But when the fiber hits the house, Google has yet to live up to the lofty expectations it initially created.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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DOShea 11/30/2013 | 9:44:48 PM
Playing with fiber... So, it seems that Google doesn't have a radically different approach, or at least isn't explaining how its supposedly better way to do broadband works. And it isn't giving apps developers much incentive in terms of market size. Isn't this what always have complained about with the so-called traditional broadband providers? Maybe Google isn't all that different.
jschultz1 11/30/2013 | 2:21:59 PM
Google Fiber's Goals? One of Google Fiber's stated goals was to demonstrate to other potantial and current service providers that there was a better, faster, mor efficeint way to build FTTP and offer gigabit services.  Given that goal, one would think that Google would be a little more open about their costs, successes, techniques, etc.  The longer Google remains silent on all of these questions and withholds any and all data and facts about what they're doing and how they're doing it, the more it looks like they are having a more difficult time than they anticipated.  I for one wish they would be a little more honest and open.
t_newt 8/4/2013 | 5:34:41 PM
re: Google Stumbling on Fiber Innovation? I've heard that Google is using WDM-PON and that its 'Google Fiber Huts' are just wavelength splitters. They do this in Korea, but I think that this is unique in the US, if it is true. There are some Google patents involving this technology.

Lightreading, you should investigate!

Google is also using its own set-top boxes and software, from acquired company SageTV.

In any case, I get the feeling that however small Google's deployment is, its US (and world) mindset is quite broad, and people's expectations for bandwidth are much higher as a result. There are other Gigabit buildouts taking place. And there is pressure on all COs and ISPs for higher bandwidth. I don't know if this is why Comcast just doubled its bandwidth in California (at no extra cost), but I'm guessing it had an influence.
Jonathan Tombes 8/2/2013 | 10:07:12 PM
re: Google Stumbling on Fiber Innovation? Preregistration of 'fiberhoods' is one difference - a tighter cherry-picking of neighborhoods than VZ ever tried - that seems more efficient way to generate cash flow.
derac 8/2/2013 | 2:46:44 PM
re: Google Stumbling on Fiber Innovation? It was always about time, money, committment and an ROI much longer than most public companies want to deal with. Plus, the real population centers are all wrapped up and even harder to address. Google didn't have any magic bullets. If they were really smart they would have sub-contracted the job to VZ. They're a search company not a networking company.
MordyK 8/1/2013 | 9:01:06 PM
re: Google Stumbling on Fiber Innovation? I think the hope was to act as a trigger for national upgrades by the existing telcos, sorta like the Nexus line of products did for Android. This however is an area in which they bring very little added value to table, so it was kind of arrogant.

This bet may pay off in the long run though and it will just be perceived as a longer term investment for a longer term market. who knows...
Carol Wilson 8/1/2013 | 8:08:48 PM
re: Google Stumbling on Fiber Innovation? BTW, here's Google promoting its fiberversary (their word, not mine) celebration.
Carol Wilson 8/1/2013 | 7:55:52 PM
re: Google Stumbling on Fiber Innovation? That's what other FTTP builders have said all along -- that Google had no expertise to bring to bear here. That they were going to learn how difficult and tedious this process is. And yet, they are proceeding to build out Austin, apparently in the same way.
Carol Wilson 8/1/2013 | 7:54:30 PM
re: Google Stumbling on Fiber Innovation? I don't think Google is alone in leaving it to the apps builders to figure out how to use the network - the question is, why would an apps builder invest in doing that for such a small population of users? I think there was an expectation that Google would participate in the process to prime the pump - maybe that expectation was erroneous, but it was definitely there.
Sarah Thomas 8/1/2013 | 5:36:06 PM
re: Google Stumbling on Fiber Innovation? I've heard the complaint about a lack of services for the 1Gig network before. Google really just left it to the community in KC to build apps that need those kind of speeds, but I'm not sure they've stepped up to the plate yet. Seems like Google could do more to partner there.
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