Since Google’s 2010 announcement of its plan to wire at least 50,000 homes with fiber connections, Google Fiber has not been delivering the way that many hoped that it would. Faced with many challenges such as change-ups in leadership and installation woes, the return on investment for this project has been rapidly shrinking and many say that Google had unrealistic expectations on how the project would unfold. But, with the company trying to pursue other paths to make Google Fiber a success, the question of what will become of it still remains.
Initially, it appeared that one of the biggest miscalculations that Google had made was the scale of the infrastructure it needed. In order to deliver a fiber connection to the areas it wanted to serve, Google had to either physically install fiber in the ground or light existing dark fiber routes. This made it difficult to keep costs for new customers low and achieve the rate of return they desired, because even with the low cost of infrastructure and hardware needed to deliver service, the cost of labor became astronomical.
There have also been issues with other providers and local governments in Google’s proposed “fiber cities” over something called “pole attachment.” There are regulations surrounding poles that new providers want to run fiber to, including the fact that the addition has to be approved by the location’s governing authorities. Additionally, every provider that is already on the pole has to send someone out to the site to move wires around and make room. This makes meeting deadlines or getting things started very difficult for the new provider, and it has stalled Google Fiber’s progress immensely as many providers fought Google’s attempts to speed things up through a “one touch ready” policy (essentially, a policy that would give a new provider permission to do all technical work itself).
Another setback for Google Fiber has been the constantly changing operating atmosphere around it. Since its inception, it has been labeled a “project,” an “experiment,” and a “business.” It has been paused and resumed and changed multiple times under a constantly fluctuating management team (three change-ups in the last year alone), the most recent of which is former Time Warner COO Dinni Jain. This constant state of change has made it hard for Google Fiber to follow through on previous plans or goals, as everyone coming in has a different idea of how things should be handled.
Even with the challenges and setbacks that have been associated with Google Fiber since its inception, it would not be smart to count it out yet. In 2016, it announced a new plan to focus on wireless to make last-mile connections more efficient, and it acquired the wireless provider Webpass. For a company that has been struggling with the restrictions surrounding fiber infrastructure, wireless could be a solution that would allow the provider to make good on its promise for lower consumer costs. Google also has been moving forward with an experiment called “Project Loon,” which consists of internet balloons being sent into the sky. This is another way to avoid having to lay more fiber in the ground.
What Did Google Fiber Teach Us?
Even if Google Fiber didn’t disrupt the industry like it had planned to, the case still brought to light many of the issues surrounding the fiber industry in general. The original announcement spurred a lot of cities into realizing that they were underserved, and began a national demand for better connectivity that the government is now addressing. In addition, even if Google could not deliver to the cities it had promised to, the threat of them entering local markets drove other providers to find ways to lower their prices to retain customers, which made things easier on consumers. The financial woes associated with the project confirmed that one of the only ways to make big fiber building projects feasible from a cost perspective is to get governments involved – something that the current administration is working hard to do so that rural and historically underserved areas can get access to better connectivity.
It still remains to be seen what path Google Fiber will take to remain on the scene, but wireless seems to be its best bet. With wireless becoming a growing trend, it could still be in a good position to bring connectivity to all of the cities that it originally wanted to service. It will, however, need a solid plan moving forward and a dedicated leadership team.