Google Fiber will leave the duopoly intact and only change the players

Google_fiber_logoThere’s a lot of talk about Google Fiber bringing competition to the marketplace, but I think it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. In reality, Google is very good at leveraging its brand to cover up many plays it’s pulling straight out of the incumbent playbook. In the end, they’re acting a lot more like Comcast than I think many are comfortable with confronting, much less admitting. I’ll make a bold prediction: Google will be the new Comcast within 5 years. I’ll make the case as to why.

The biggest problem I see with Google Fiber is their practice of redlining and cherry-picking. Their pattern so far has been to break up neighborhoods into very small “fiberhoods” and only build if there is sufficient demand. Given that they ask for either a 2-year contract at $70/mo or $300 to install the service, it’s easy to see how low-income neighborhoods are unlikely to reap the benefits of a new vertical monopoly in town. This is the kind of practice that Comcast and CenturyLink has been dying to get into: upgrading only the most lucrative areas and letting the low-margin subsidized lines languish.

Let’s not also forget that you have a very limited time to sign up or be left behind. Google has made it very clear in their FAQs that it has no plans to reopen to new subscribers once the signup period has closed. In a rental-heavy market like Provo, this could exclude a large proportion of the user base from ever getting service. There’s also no mention on if someone can reactivate a terminated line to get service again.

So why is Google doing this? Based on the company’s history, I think it’s all about costs. Google is famous for designing hardware to meet very specific needs, a process that leads them to be extremely efficient. It’s not much of a stretch to think this same efficiency is being applied to building Google Fiber. (Warning: speculation ahead.) My theory is that they’re building the network exactly to capacity in an effort to reduce costs and maximize ROI. If you don’t have to plan for potential future additions or build the network where demand won’t meet certain profit goals, you can slash your cost per subscriber to under $1K. Assuming they make about $35 per subscriber per month in profit (which is consistent with numbers I’ve heard from UTOPIA service providers), that works out to a payback of under 2.5 years. With a 5-7 year contract, it’s not hard to see how Google is going to make money hand over fist.

This makes it all the more curious, then, as to why they need all sorts of concessions from municipal governments to make it happen. While their official checklist for the latest round of cities claims that no subsidies are expected, it’s hard to see how really going to be the case. Kansas City greased the wheels with millions in tax dollars whereas Provo literally gave away the network to get Google’s attention. This is much like CenturyLink’s hypocrisy in decrying municipal systems as unfair competition while available themselves again and again and again of available tax dollars. Google may say that they don’t want subsidies, but the unspoken understanding is that without significant municipal concessions, they’re probably going to pass you over.

With all of these behaviors that remind us of the many ways in which Google is behaving like an incumbent carrier, it doesn’t take much to connect the dots. CenturyLink is probably going to let residential wireline rot on the vine as it pursues high-margin business services. Comcast will quickly hit the end of its upgrade capacity and focus instead on entrenching its vertical monopoly between content production and distribution, replacing CenturyLink as the “cheap” provider. Google is then free to fill the void left by Comcast as the “fast” provider, and we’re right back in the non-competitive state we had before, just with different names on the door.

To be quite frank, I don’t think Google has the capacity to be a good ISP. Google has a history of very technocratic decisions, depending heavily on the technical specs, prowess of their products, and brand name to compensate for their lack of customer service and direct marketing. This is uncharted territory for them, especially since they haven’t proven to be very adroit at dealing with entrenched companies whose lobbyists have very deep government connections. While I’m willing to be proven wrong, I don’t think they’re really prepared to survive in the regulation- and politics-heavy world of telecom, especially when the margins are relatively low. Once the reality of operating a utility settles in, you have to wonder if Google is going to treat their fiber products like they did their WiFi network in Mountain View.

When cities are considering Google’s proposal, they need to look at it with clear vision. There’s a limited amount of skin they have to put in the game, but they’re also not getting the same level of benefits that they could be. Overall, Google is offering to rearrange the deck chairs, not right the telecom ship. I hope that more cities will be wise to it.

Not Just Copper: Is CenturyLink slowly withdrawing from the residential wireline market entirely?

CenturyLinkAlmost all of our broadband heartburn comes from uncompetitive markets. Even in areas with at least two wireline competitors (which is only about 95% of the urbanized Wasatch Front), you’re usually stuck picking between faster speeds from Comcast and cheaper speeds from CenturyLink. I’ve already written that it’s looking like CenturyLink is going to let copper die without a replacement, but it’s entirely possible they just want to get out of the residential market entirely. This would be a nightmare for competitive choice in our state.

Do you remember the last time CenturyLink upgraded their ADSL2+ product? I do; it was 2009. The year before, they stopped doing FTTN deployments entirely, occasionally lighting a new FTTN node here or there. Most of the Wasatch Front is still limited to 7Mbps ADSL with real-world performance usually coming in much less than that. I know people in Sandy that struggle to squeeze 3Mbps out of that aging copper. It makes CenturyLink’s claims of doing their own gigabit fiber seem pretty hollow and underscores that their main purpose in deploying FTTN may have been to try clubbing competitors in the kneecaps.

Just look at how CenturyLink has been not responding to competitive threats. In Provo, Comcast very quickly pushed their system to its absolute limits with a 250Mbps/50Mbps tier that price-matches Google. What did CenturyLink do? Nothing. They haven’t uttered a single word about doing any kind of upgrades in Provo at all. Who can blame them? It would cost them tens of millions of dollars to go after a customer base that hates them. The ROI would be so far out as to be disastrous. It’s noteworthy that the only places CenturyLink has announced doing FTTH have been duopoly markets, places with a more-or-less captive customer base. Given their non-response to Veracity rolling their own ADSL2+ using CenturyLink cabinets, this isn’t too surprising.

At the same time, CenturyLink has been chasing down deals to build fiber to cell towers and focusing heavily on their business services through acquisitions like Savvis. These premium services command much greater profit margins and more stable user bases than residential markets, plus they can easily convince businesses to pay the full cost of installing the latest technology. Even when the fiber to cell towers goes into residential areas, CenturyLink has been noncommittal about using it to upgrade DSL users to better speeds or technologies. It seems very strange to not want to use the investment to upgrade other services. I’d usually say they just don’t have the money, but they just approved spending $1B on a stock buyback program, money that would deploy gigabit fiber to as many as 1M homes and businesses.

This all paints a very disturbing picture for the future of telecommunications where open access systems like UTOPIA aren’t or won’t be available: Comcast will be the only real ISP for most users, and cities who go with Google Fiber will be right back into the “fast vs cheap” duopoly they hate so much right now. This is one of the many reasons why I’ve been so sour on both Provo and Salt Lake City for going with Google instead of fixing the underlying anticompetitive problems in the telecommunications space. Why would you expect Google to be any better than Comcast when they no longer really have to work for your business?

Is Google Sweet on UTOPIA?

The Salt Lake Tribune reports today that Google had a few UTOPIA executives come out to their offices last month to discuss how UTOPIA operates. The article insinuates that this may mean that UTOPIA is near the top of the heap in Google’s search for a location to build a fiber-optic network. As tantalizing as that possibility is, I don’t think there’s evidence enough to support it.

Google would obviously be interested in how UTOPIA operates regardless of if they are a finalist. UTOPIA’s model is very, very close to what Google wants to do and it is in their best interests to learn what does and doesn’t work on an open-access wholesale fiber-to-the-premises network. I think UTOPIA would be an excellent partner for Google, but nobody yet knows if Google is interested in expanding an existing project (or one already in progress) or taking the steps to create one from scratch using the best practices of what’s already been tried. That alone could make or break any potential deal between the two parties.

Google may also not want to step into such a partnership because of the complexities of determining who owns what. While I believe them to be an honorable company that tries to do the right thing more often than not (despite, on occasion, stepping in it), they are likely going to want some interest in whatever the finished product may be and potentially a controlling one. Cities that have already sunk a bunch of time, energy, and money into it may not be so willing to let go of the reins.

I know there is a lot of excitement about a company of Google’s stature dropping a fat wad of cash on crazy-fast pipes, but we should try tempering that with a realistic perspective. It’s simply too soon to tell who Google will choose to work with.

BREAKING: Gov. Herbert Supports a Google Partnership with UTOPIA

In what is another positive piece of news for UTOPIA, Utah Governor Gary Herbert issued a letter today urging Google to partner with UTOPIA. In his remarks, he referred to UTOPIA as “a good candidate to partner with Google” and praised both “successfully pursued models of deployment” and their “sustainable and reliable model” which has made Utah “well-prepped ground”. This kind of unabashed support and endorsement will carry weight in state political circles and hopefully give Utah another point in the plus column as Google evaluates applications.

Haven’t given Google your pitch yet? Go do it now before the March 26 deadline.

UTOPIA Announces That They Will Pursue Google Fiber RFI

Today on the steps of city hall in West Valley City, UTOPIA announced their intention to pursue an RFI with Google on their ambitious fiber-to-the-home project. Mayors of several of the cities spoke strongly in favor of the idea and provided examples of how UTOPIA fiber is already enriching their cities. Several also pointed out that Google plans to use a model almost exactly like UTOPIA which validates their plan.

Several private companies, including Thomas Arts, spoke strongly in favor of UTOPIA and the value it provided for their growing businesses. It was also announced that Connected Lyfe has joined the network as a new service provider, though it’s not entirely clear as to what services they plan to offer.

Google Fiber in Utah: Contact Your Elected Officials

A critical component of convincing Google that their fiber optic build should be located in the Beehive State is participation not just from you and me, but also from elected officials. While it will be obvious that you should contact your city council members and mayor, have you also considered contacting your state legislators? Here’s what I wrote to Sen. Niederhauser and Rep. Beck:

Greetings Sen. Niederhauser and Rep. Beck;

As you may have heard, Google has offered to build a fiber optic network similar to UTOPIA designed to reach from 50,000 to 500,000 households. They are currently accepting proposals from municipalities and individuals in order to determine where they should build. The website with additional information and links to the applications is available here: http://www.google.com/appserve/fiberrfi/

It would be absolutely incredible if Google decided to come to Utah to partner with or compliment UTOPIA’s efforts to improve our state’s critical telecommunications infrastructure. It would bring significant investment into the state and thousands of new jobs. I know you both likely have your hands full during this legislative session, but it would be very helpful if either or both of you would sponsor a resolution in favor of Google’s participation in our state and/or pass this along to the appropriate agencies within the executive branch. Google is only accepting proposals and nominations through March 26, so time is of the essence.

Thank you for your time and consideration. If you have questions about telecommunications or what Google is doing, please feel free to call or e-mail me.

While legislators are very busy people, especially as they consider how to balance the state budget, it can’t hurt to sent a short and concise e-mail urging them to adopt and pass such a simple resolution. If you don’t know who your legislators are, you can find out from the Utah Legislature website. You can also consider contacting your county government officials as well; the more support, the better!

Google Wants to Build Muni Fiber; Tell Them to Build it Here

Google pretty much send the entire telecom world spinning by announcing today that it would like to build a 1Gbps fiber network to cover a footprint of between 50,000 and 500,000. More significantly, Google is requiring that the project be an open wholesale network with heavy municipal involvement. In fact, the Mountain View company has validated municipal open wholesale fiber optic networks as the preferred network of choice in the 21st Century, a fact I’m sure will not be lost on critics of such projects. (Yes, UTA, I’m telling you to grab a big, hot slice of humble pie and chow down.) Through March 26, Google will be accepting proposals and nominations from municipalities and interested residents for where they should build this network. This is your chance to get fiber in Utah for absolutely nothing courtesy of one of the largest tech companies in the world.

And really, we’re a perfect fit. Or, more precisely, UTOPIA is a perfect fit. It’s a municipal fiber project. It’s an open network. There’s already nine providers offering services right now. The backbone and NOC are done. The city has pole attachment rights and franchise agreements already in place. There’s middle-mile fiber all over the place. And, should the footprint be completed, it’s well within the size requirement that Google is looking for. UTOPIA is a shovel-ready project that could complete the build of the network within a year of Google getting involved while providing a significantly lower cost per home than many other communities. That’s a lot of bang for your buck.

Now this is the part where you come in. Google wants you, each of you, to nominate your community for this project. This is one of those cases where the prize is so great that nobody (and I mean nobody) who wants 1Gbps Internet access in their home can afford to not at least fire off a quick submission. Every one of you needs to do it. Your city needs to do it. Every one of your friends needs to do it, their friends need to do it, your family, your ward/congregation members, your neighbors, even that guy down the street that you don’t like because he doesn’t mow his lawn as often as he should. Google needs to hear from thousands of Utahns that this is still the place.

I’m asking each of you reading to right now make a personal commitment to tell at least 10 people you know to submit a nomination via Google’s fiber website and follow-up to make sure it gets done. Get each of them to commit to asking 10 more people to do the same. If all 175 FeedBurner subscribers do this, Google will have over 17,000 nominations from Utahns via this website alone. If all 1,000 unique visitors to this site do it between now and the deadline of March 26, they will have over 100,000 comments. Do you see the power of the snowball effect here?

Google CEO Eric Schmidt said during his visit to the Utah Technology Council last October that we don’t retain technology companies we start because we lack high-speed broadband. Let’s take him and his company up on their generous offer to show them what we’re made of. Get it done and get it done right now.

Broadband Bytes: March 7-13, 2009

A new study shows that broadband growth is starting to level off while a separate study claims we’re paying as much as $3 per minute for our cell phones. We’re also getting more details of the broadband stimulus package (sparse as they may be), Comcast claims to have more phone customers than Qwest (seriously!), and Google finally takes the wraps off of Grandcentral to rebrand it as Google Voice (phone operators, go ahead and wet yourselves). All that and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes!

  • Broadband is still growing, just not like it used to. With 59% of American households now on better-than-dial-up connections and a sagging economy, the broadband market is looking a lot like the cellphone market in that almost everyone who wants it has it. And how do you get the last little bits of the market? I’ll give you a hint: follow the wireless industry’s lead. They swooped in with cheap plans, pre-paid phones, and multi-line service to make sure that everyone became their customer. ISPs can do wild things like, say, offer WiFi service with fixed broadband plans.
  • How much do you pay per minute for your cellular phone? A recent survey in California says you’re paying an average of $3 per minute for your peak minutes. Even lopping off the top users takes the cost down to anywhere from $0.50 to $1.00 per minute. Granted, this study doesn’t factor in your “free” night, weekend, or in-network minutes, so take it with a grain of salt.
  • The NTIA held a kick-off meeting to discuss the upcoming broadband stimulus package, but they apparently came to the meeting without much in the way of answers. All the same, attendees were reportedly generally pleased with the kick-off and the NTIA would really like to know your opinion. The House is even thinking about rewriting USF rules to allow for the money to be spent on broadband. It’s not all sunshine, though. IPI, a “stink tank” much like The “Reason” Foundation, is trying to block any efforts to fund muni efforts. Because, you know, incumbents did such a bang-up job deploying affordable and widely available broadband.
  • Comcast says that it’s picked up enough phone customers to be the third largest phone company in the country right behind AT&T and Verizon. (Sorry Qwest, but we knew this day would come.) They’ve been very aggressive at marketing phone service (unlike Qwest), offering competitive pricing on triple-play packages (unlike Qwest), and doing a lot of work to improve their company image (three strikes; guess who’s out). Not satisfied with their current numbers, Comcast is suing the feds so they can get bigger. The FCC currently prohibits any cable operator from owning more than 30% of the national market.
  • Remember Grandcentral? You know… phone number for life, rings all of your lines, intelligent forwarding, hasn’t done anything for the last two years as Google sat on their purchase. Sound familiar? Well, Google finally unveiled Google Voice, the successor to Grandcentral. In addition to all of the other great calling features of Grandcentral, they also tossed in SMS forwarding and automatic voicemail transcription, both searchable with Google’s own search technology. They aren’t open to any new users just yet, but the feature-rich services they offer are something worth copycating. Oh yeah, and they’re going to do super-cheap international calls. Think that phone companies may be a bit edgy?
  • Sprint is moving one step closer to dumb pipe operator by hinting that despite betting the farm on WiMax via Clearwire, they haven’t ruled out using LTE in the future. Despite the impression that WiMax and LTE are day and night, the difference is more in the software than the hardware. I think Sprint is getting ahead of the curve and realizing that operating the wholesale pipe is a lot more stable than trying to please end users, a task it has proven ill-suited at handling. Given the massive vertical integration of landlines, video, fixed data, wireless, and mobile broadband from giants AT&T and Verizon, Sprint’s exit from the telco business by spinning off local operations as Embarq, and further pressure from Cox Communications, Time Warner, and Comcast as they ramp up wireless products, Sprint may have seen the writing on the wall.
  • Verizon’s big FIOS builds aren’t just benefiting dense East-coast towns. Their insatiable demand for fiber has dropped equipment prices substantively allowing smaller telcos to go fiber-to-the-home. Even Utah’s own Manti Telecommunications Company is reported to be getting in on the action. With equipment costs dropping like a rock, now you just have to worry about the high cost of trenching and being obstructed by your “friendly” local incumbent.

Broadband Bytes: January 24-30, 2009

This week saw the DTV transition delay get, uh, delayed (though not for long), Cox’s new traffic management plan, and a competing version of the broadband stimulus package that offers 50% more cash for 90% fewer conditions. Qwest also renewed its fight with SkyWi, Charter dropped a 60Mbps gauntlet, and Google launched tools to find out if you’re being throttled by your ISP. All that and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes!

  • The DTV delay got stalled up as the House failed to consider the bill for a fast-track passage despite unanimous support from the Senate. The Senate later passed a second DTV delay bill that the House should vote on next week; it’s widely expected that it will pass and President Obama has already said he will sign the bill as soon as it hits his desk. Now Congress just needs to figure out if/how to fund the 3.2 million (and growing) backlogged requests for DTV converter box coupons. I think the whole thing is kind of silly since Hawaii made the switch and there was no TV armageddon. Besides, interim FCC Chairman Copps says that a seamless transition is impossible.
  • Cox Communications is the latest large ISP to implement some kind of network management, opting for a system that’s a lot like what Comcast did. Unlike Comcast, however, they plan to throttle specific “low-priority” traffic types once the congestion gets too high including FTP file transfers, torrents and newsgroups. Predictably, there are a lot of people calling bunk on the plan, but I don’t think it’s so bad. Comcast is getting ripped by the FCC since their protocol-agnostic version would degrade competitor’s VoIP traffic if you end up being one of the hogs, so it makes sense to try and only smack around the data types that generate a lot of packets and a lot of transfer. Most users are fine with network management schemes so long as they are transparent and generous; the complaining just happens to be very, vey loud.
  • The US Senate has put together a competing version of the House’s broadband stimulus plan. The good? It ups the funds by 50% to $9B. The bad? It strips out all of the open access language and allows anyone to get in on the action. DSLReports rightly calls it a giveaway to Verizon since they can become eligible for money at the flick of a switch without having to really do much of anything differently and, as expected, Qwest doesn’t like how the plan is shaping up either. The House has already passed the $6B version and kept open access provisions intact. It also keeps the money restricted to rural and underserved areas and will only be available via loans and grants, not tax breaks as incumbents had hoped for. GigaOm has a great breakdown of who wins or loses in the various proposals.Telco lobbyists are already launching a multi-pronged attack. They want to scrap special access rates for competitors, up the spending, drop the speed requirements, get more tax breaks… pretty much anything they think might stick. Incumbents, though, seem to have missed the memo that the goals of this plan are to increase availability of braodband AND increase competition, not entrench the incumbents. I suppose they’re too used to abusing the USF and getting their way.
  • Qwest decided to ignore an order from New Mexico’s PRC and disconnect some of SkyWi’s customers without the required 10-day warning. Qwest has likely figured that whatever the penalty is, it’s worth it to kill off a competitor and SkyWi might not be around to finish its lawsuit. The company tried to pass it off as a clerical error. Expect New Mexico’s PRC to give Qwest a serious smackdown (provided it can survive Qwest’s army of robot lawyers) and keep an eye open for possible FCC involvement. Spurned CLECs like SkyWi are prime companies to recuit onto open networks like UTOPIA.
  • Charter, despite its severe financial problems, stole the St. Louis speed crown from AT&T by launching a 60Mbps DOCSIS 3.0 service at a wallet-busting $140/mo. This bests Comcast and Verizon by about 10Mbps, but it far faster than anything AT&T can do with ADSL2+. Verizon took the opportunity to make fun of DOCSIS 3.0 and its limits as compared to fiber. Users on UTOPIA are likely very “ho-hum” about the announcement since 50Mbps service has been available for quite some time.
  • Speaking of Verizon and AT&T, they announced earnings this week that reveal that DSL and landline users are being cannibalized by their FIOS and U-Verse systems, respectively. Both systems are picking up a lot of video users, but the margins on most television packages are very slim. Wireless revenues were the real shining spot, but it didn’t stop AT&T from posting a large drop in revenues and announcing a sharp decrease in spending for system upgrades. Guess the iPhone wasn’t enough to save them as AT&T also froze executive compensation (including bonuses) and brought a lot of jobs back to the US from India. Verizon is also rumored to be contemplating layoffs despite a good quarter.
  • Google fired a shot at ISPs who employ any kind of throttling or traffic management by offering up free tools to test for it. Even if your ISP isn’t engaging in these kinds of practices, the presence of these tools will help keep them honest. In the debate over network management, it’s very important to be clear and upfront about any caps or network management policies you plan to employ. Comcast got a PR black eye by hiding its policies for months as angry users took to the Internet and flooded forums with complaints. They get kind of stabby when you mention it after the fact (and for good reason).
  • I imagine users on Comcast and AT&T will appreciate these new tools. All three ISPs have signed on with the RIAA to disconnect users who are sharing copyrighted files. It’s part of the RIAA’s broad approach to turn ISPs into their copyright cops in exchange for a cut of the action, something they have successfully pulled off in Ireland. Given the lack of an appeals process and frequent ISP mistakes, you can bet that this opens the market for competing providers to snap up those customers.In the UK, they’re debating a different approach: a £20/mo “piracy tax”. Such a tax has already been implemented in Isle of Man which allows residents there to pirate as much as they want for under $1.50/mo. The RIAA would probably do better to offer an “all you can download” music service or some kind of “piracy license” that gives you the right to download whatever you want.
  • Comcast is thinking about offering WiFi to subscribers, but no word yet on if they plan to charge for it or use it as a perk to lure in customers. They’re currenting testing it out in New Jersey in a partnership with Cablevision. Cox Communications really took the lead on this by snapping up a lot of regional 700MHz licenses so that they can start offering wireless services as well, including leasing tower space to cell phone carriers. Thinking beyond the triple play to include these kinds of services is a smart move for any service provider.
  • Smart companies also focus on customer service. Charter has taken up permanent residence on the DSLReports forum and, like Comcast, has a customer service team assigned to Twitter. And while Sprint has announced that they will layoff 8,000, they plan to avoid sacking anyone in a customer service position even as subscribers decline sharply. High customer satisfaction leads to low churn and lots of free word-of-mouth advertising. I recently got support from Sprint’s Twitter team and got my issue resolved in record time.
  • Guess who’s making money hand over fist? If you guessed Netflix, give yourself a red envelope. Or don’t, since most of the company’s revenue has come from users switching from mailed DVDs to streaming on their PC or TV. Even with the switch to streaming, Netflix is going to start shipping DVDs on Saturdays to help speed up processing and delivery times. (No word on how the post office’s plans to drop Tuesday service will affect this.) I wouldn’t be surprised if the secret sauce in Netflix’s bottom line is customer satisfaction. The few times I’ve had an issue, I had a short hold time to talk to a live person who was empowered to make me happy.