Business

Google Fiber picks Charlotte – now what?

By Rick Rothacker and Katherine Peralta - rrothacker@charlotteobserver.com

January 27, 2015 12:15 PM

UPDATED January 28, 2015 09:07 AM

Now that Google has selected Charlotte for its superfast Internet services, what comes next?

Officials from the technology giant and the city said the next step is a detailed design process, followed by a massive, sometimes disruptive construction project. Thousands of miles of fiber need to be laid underground or hung on utility poles.

Google wouldn’t provide a specific start date, but Jill Szuchmacher, Google Fiber’s director of expansion, urged eager customers to be patient.

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“We will build one area at a time. It won’t be an instantaneous flip of a switch,” she said at a news conference Tuesday to announce Google’s Charlotte arrival.

Google announced last February that it had picked Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham as two of nine metropolitan areas where it next hoped to deploy its Google Fiber networks. City leaders officially applied for the service last year and had been awaiting Google’s response.

On Tuesday, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company held news conferences to officially announce that Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Atlanta and Nashville had made the cut.

Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter said the decision will spur economic development, boost entrepreneurs and bring improved Internet access to the city’s neighborhoods.

“Competition is good,” he said. “The more service the better.”

The city is stressing the importance of bridging the “digital divide” that limits access to lower-income residents, Clodfelter said, a concern that has cropped up as Google has built its network in other cities.

Mayor Clodfelter confirming Google Charlotte coming to Charlotte. pic.twitter.com/tDUcdDmKB9

— Rick Rothacker (@rickrothacker) January 27, 2015

Kevin Lo, director of Google Fiber business and operations, said the offering – with speeds up to 100 times normal broadband – will put Charlotte on par with the fastest cities in the word, places such as Seoul, Tokyo and Zurich.

Lo said it would take “many months” to complete the design work for the network and that it would be premature to discuss construction start or finish dates. He said potential customers will be able to sign up for updates on the timing.

Citing the experience in other cities, Phil Reiger, assistant director of Charlotte’s Department of Transportation, said in the “best-case scenario,” construction could begin this summer. “There will be quite a bit of time before fiber is lit for the first customer,” he said.

And for those who live outside Charlotte, Google Fiber isn’t expected to come anytime soon. “For today and for the foreseeable future, our primary focus is building a great network in Charlotte,” Lo said.

Google is not asking the city for any incentives or subsidies, he said.

Faster speeds

Google Fiber, which is already in three cities, could mean a much faster Internet experience for consumers in Charlotte.

The 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 10 to 20 megabits per second, Google Fiber promises 1,000 megabits – or 1 gigabit – per second.

As an example, Lo said a geneticist in Provo, Utah, using Google Fiber can now download an entire genome in less than half an hour. It used to take 77 hours.

After Google’s announcement last year, competitors Time Warner Cable and AT&T also announced plans to deploy faster services. Time Warner Cable said last week it plans to roll the service out this year; AT&T said it will provide more details about its Charlotte plans closer to launch.

Google hasn’t announced official prices for Charlotte. But Lo said he expects it to be similar to what the company is offering in Austin, Texas; and Kansas City, where the high-speed Internet service costs $70 per month.

Google also expects to have a combined TV and Internet package, Lo said. That costs between $120 and $130 per month in Kansas City and Austin, according to the company’s website.

The company also has a “basic” offering that provides slower Internet speeds but no monthly fee. The only cost is a $300 “construction fee.”

That offering has caught the attention of Clodfelter as a way to improve access across the city.

“I’m particularly pleased that they are working hard on putting together this basic service package so that they’ll be able to bring affordable service into some of our neighborhoods that don’t have that,” Clodfelter said.

Concerns about access

As it’s building out a network, Google divides a city into “Fiberhoods,” neighborhoods based on its design and engineering requirements, Reiger said. The company then asks consumers to preregister, and it brings the network to those areas that meet a certain threshold.

“Our intention is to serve every citizen in Charlotte,” Lo said.

Critics, however, have raised concerns that putting fiber only where there is enough interest could lead to more service in affluent neighborhoods, leaving other areas to fall behind. A 2013 survey by Bernstein Research found that nearly half of rich neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kan., planned to definitely purchase Google Fiber, compared with 18 percent in poor neighborhoods. The numbers were similar in Kansas City, Mo.

Clodfelter said the city hasn’t developed any concrete plans with Google on access but it has signaled to the company that it’s an important upfront issue.

“We’re going to have to be intentional about getting into communities to make sure they understand why this is valuable to them, why they should want it and to demonstrate that it’s something they can access and afford,” he said. “I think if we do that, our chances of people being bypassed and overlooked will be much diminished.”