Google Pivots from Fiber to 5G

Alphabet puts Google Fiber development on hold in several cities to explore wireless alternatives

  Feel like it’s taking Google Fiber forever to find its way into your neighborhood? You’re not alone. Cities across America have been waiting patiently for Alphabet, Google Fiber’s parent company, to begin building the infrastructure that’ll bring high-speed internet home. But thus far, it’s been an exercise in frustration for both sides. In six years, Google has managed to establish their inexpensive fiber networks in just six cities scattered across America. At this rate, we’ll be crawling into the network speeds needed to sustain innovation a century too late. What’s the hold up?

Fiber Failures

It’s possible that Google may have underestimated the difficulty of breaking into the hundred-year-old telecommunications industry. Just a little. While some speculate that Google’s bid to launch fiber was simply a bluff to nudge providers to increase broadband speeds, the endeavor extended a promise to municipalities that Google is struggling to deliver. Development of fiber networks by Google in over 16 cities has stumbled and stalled based on two major roadblocks:

1. Expensive Infrastructure

It’s costly and excruciatingly slow to dig up yards and streets to install the infrastructure needed to deliver high-speed internet. It’s estimated that in Portland, one of the cities that Google has been exploring bringing fiber to for several years, it would take nearly 300 million dollars to cover the last mile and create connected homes. That’s a hunk of change even Google might hesitate over.

2. Legislative Limbo

While 60 percent of the potential fiber infrastructure exists underground, roughly 40 percent utilizes utility poles. And that’s where Google Fiber has run smack into a legislative nightmare. In Nashville, for example, AT&T owns a vast majority of the poles that Google would need to access. The current process involves a maze of permits and procedures that allows AT&T to stonewall development for months. Google’s efforts to introduce easy access legislation at the local level has resulted in court appeals that leaves the future of fiber hanging in the balance.

Development Delayed

In response to these and other difficulties, Google Fiber appears to be pivoting towards alternatives that might enable them to cover the last mile without the costly infrastructure. While they can’t compete with the big lobbies and deep pockets of the telecommunications industry, Alphabet’s Google Fiber is looking at ways to take the battle for the last mile from the ground to the airwaves.

“We are experimenting with a number of different wireless technologies…All of the initiatives and technologies are really meant to further our overall vision, which is really to create abundant and ubiquitous networks.”

Craig Barratt, CEO Google Fiber, Interview with recode, August 14th, 2016

Officially, Google has put fiber development on hold in areas like Palo Alto, Portland, and others around the country. The company has stated they will halt planned buildouts in several cities for at least the next six months. What’s Google up to instead?

5G is a Go

Alphabet bought Webpass a few months ago, a company that is heavily invested in wireless technologies and the future of 5G networks. Google’s acquisition gave the industry a clear signal that they were exploring alternatives, including 5G, which stands for fifth generation networks. This type of wireless technology has been generating lots of buzz since the FCC opened up additional bandwidth for potential development, and involves utilizing shorter waves at higher frequencies that would create faster connections. Previously, reliable Wi-Fi connections weren’t considered possible at higher frequencies due to the natural interference and signal loss that occurs with shorter wavelengths. However, technological advances and innovative approaches have convinced the FCC that 5G networks are not only possible but also inevitable. They’ve begun creating incentives to get providers investing in the innovation that has the potential to boost signals and bring more speed to the edges of current service areas. Google has filed with the FCC and been granted a license to explore “experimental radio service” in 12 cities in the next 24 months. It’s expected the company will focus on areas like Austin and Provo, where they have an existing network of contractors and innovators that could support the testing necessary to bring 5G networks to life. They’ll be cramming homes with wireless devices, creating small towers to bounce and boost broadband signals, and racing to beat other providers to bring faster speeds to communities thirsty for a gigabit.

Muni-Networks Floundering

While the FCC and the Obama administration have been advocates of municipalities that choose to establish their own high-speed networks, muni-networks are currently struggling under a mantle of legislation. In over 20 states, laws exist that prevent cities from creating internet utilities and recently, the court of appeals decided in favor of providers, paving the way for increased resistance to publically owned internet infrastructure. This development is an important one for Google Fiber, who had previously begun to buy existing lines (otherwise known as “dark fiber”) or encouraging cities to build their own networks. As this practice grows increasingly prohibitive, Google will need to continue to find ways to circumvent a powerful telecommunications industry.

“The characteristic of great innovators and great companies is they see a space that others do not. They don’t just listen to what people tell them; they actually invent something new, something that you didn’t know you needed, but the moment you see it, you say, ‘I must have it.'”

Eric Schmidt, Google CEO

While Google’s recent pivot to 5G doesn’t signal the death knell of fiber, it does mean that many cities will have to explore alternatives if they want to bring inexpensive high-speed internet to their communities this year. To get a glimpse of the speeds available in your community, use our zip code tool to compare providers and see how high-speed internet is shaping up in your neighborhood.  

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Kaz is a writer, blogger and social media junkie. She uses her tenacity to investigate the best of the Internets.

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