February 20, 2014

Charlotte chosen for next Google Fiber expansion

Google Fiber, the data network touted for Internet access speeds up to 100 times faster than basic broadband systems, could be on its way to Charlotte.

Google Fiber, the data network touted for Internet access speeds up to 100 times faster than basic broadband systems, could be on its way to Charlotte.

Google announced Wednesday that it has picked Charlotte as one of nine metropolitan areas where it next hopes to deploy the fiber-optic network. The tech giant is building out a fiber-optic network in Kansas City, has bought an existing one in Provo, Utah, and has begun planning one in Austin, Texas.

Experts say Google’s entry could force Charlotte’s broadband providers to lower prices or rev up speeds. It could also spark tensions with competitors, spur construction barricades around the city and overwhelm city staff with a flood of permit applications.

AT&T tried to block Google from using its utility poles in Austin, and Kansas City residents were angered when crews placed a Google utility cabinet in the middle of a sidewalk.

Company officials said they want to expand the network to Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Atlanta, Nashville, San Antonio, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Portland and San Jose. Thirty-four cities within those metro areas would be included.

Google will send a team to Charlotte as early as next week to start engaging city officials in a joint planning process aimed at mapping the logistics of the potential network, Google representatives said.

Google will focus its efforts within the city limits for the time being, but didn’t rule out the possibility of expanding to surrounding areas later.

The planning process will involve studying everything from soil conditions and housing density to placement of utility poles and water and gas lines.

Similar studies will be going on at all 34 cities. Google officials say that, for cities where conditions are deemed right, they hope to announce late this year that construction will proceed. The company said it hopes all the cities can work.

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon welcomed the chance to work with Google, especially since many observers have called such warp-speed Internet connections magnets for tech entrepreneurs.

“There’s no question the Internet has rewired how we work and live,” Cannon said. “Abundant high-speed access will make our community stronger.”

When Google first launched the Fiber plan about four years ago, more than 1,000 cities lobbied the company in hopes of being among the first to get it. Topeka, Kansas, even temporarily changed its name to Google, Kansas.

Charlotte wasn’t among the cities that lobbied Google for the network, company officials said.

But Kevin Lo, who manages the Google Fiber network nationally, said in a telephone interview that the company was attracted by Charlotte’s business sector, including an emerging energy hub and entrepreneurial scene.

“We’re really excited about the area and excited about trying to build a Fiber network there,” Lo said.

A digital game-changer

Google Fiber works like current cable and broadband services, only faster. Fiber-optic cables must be run to homes, and subscribers can get up to 200 high-definition TV channels and home Internet.

The new technology allows no-waiting downloads and uploads of big graphics, photos, videos and other large files that often strain current networks. Where basic broadband typically generates speeds of about 10 to 20 megabits per second, Google Fiber promises 1,000 megabits – or 1 gigabit – per second.

In Kansas City, subscribers are getting gigabit Internet for $70 per month, or gigabit Internet and cable TV for $120 a month. Google also offers basic broadband at today’s speeds for a one-time construction fee of $300 and no monthly fee.

One industry analyst said Google’s entry could prompt existing providers to lower prices or upgrade service bundles.

“We’ll see cable operators in all these (new) markets offer new plans within the next 12 months to get ahead of this,” said Teresa Mastrangelo of Broadbandtrends, a Roanoke, Va.,-based market analysis firm specializing in the broadband industry.

North Carolina’s cable companies are watching Google’s entry “with great interest,” Marcus Trathen, counsel to the N.C. Cable Telecommunications Association, wrote in an email to the Observer.

One area provider plans to beat Google out the starting gate. Earlier this month, cable firm Comporium announced that it was designing Zipstream, the Charlotte region’s first gigabit broadband network, in downtown Rock Hill.

AT&T officials in Charlotte said they are also considering rolling out fiber-optic service through their U-Verse network in areas where there is high demand.

Google officials say tech entrepreneurs have been drawn to Kansas City because of the new network’s speeds. And existing major broadband providers are already eying it warily as a potential competitor.

When cable giant Comcast announced its acquisition of Time Warner Cable recently, Comcast officials pointed to the fledgling Google Fiber network as a sign that significant competition will remain in the marketplace.

When Google announced it would bring the network to Austin sometime in 2014, AT&T immediately announced it would bring gigabit service to Austin, too – and beat Google to the punch by launching it in December.

Time Warner increased speeds of some of its services in Kansas City and offered free Wi-Fi in public areas to existing customers.

Construction is complicated

Building a new fiber-optic network isn’t easy.

Cables would have to be laid across Charlotte in a massive construction project that could tax city permitting staff and test the patience of residents.

In Charlotte and other cities, Google is using the joint planning process for the first time in hopes of avoiding – or at least minimizing – such controversies.

If Charlotte gets the green light at the end of the year, it remains unclear exactly how long it would be before the service would be ready.

Google announced its Kansas City project in March 2010 and began connecting customers in November 2012. Austin was announced last April, and Google hopes to bring service to the first customers by the end of this year.

Cannon said it’s too early to tell whether the new network will cost the city of Charlotte anything, be it in staff time or other investments. But he was optimistic the city can make the process work.

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