Feeling the Google Heat: Comcast will bump speeds to 250Mbps/50Mbps in Provo

Competition is good, and Comcast is just now proving it. I spoke with one of their sales guys who confirmed that Comcast will be offering a package of 250Mbps/50Mbps for $70 starting in September, but only in Provo. (Sorry, everywhere else.) This is in direct response to Google Fiber coming to town and will include a new modem with a built-in 802.11ac router to take advantage of the speed bump. It’s unknown if this speed tier will land in any other cities in the future.

This is yet another story proving that having a fiber network in your town benefits everyone, not just subscribers.

Learning the Wrong Lessons from iProvo and Google Fiber: A Rebuttal

I suppose this kind of response to the Google Fiber announcement was inevitable, just as it’s completely false assumptions are. The author gets a number of predictable things wrong.

[A]nd finally Provo will be out of the Telcom business.

No, it won’t. It’s still paying for the bond, it has to shell out another $1.7M to make it happen, and there’s a provision that they get the buy the network back for $1 should Google decide to pull up stakes. Granted, that may never happen, but to say that Provo has washed its hands of the matter is patently false.

[I]t’s not like there was some huge cache of potential customers waiting for join the Net.

That’s a really funny thing to say about a network with a 35% take in spite of having multiple failed private providers and mountains of negative press. Bear in mind that Verizon was thrilled to have a 18% take rate on FIOS after two years. If anything, many people were holding out while they were waiting for a less-tainted provider to be an option.

[F]iber is clearly not “future-proof” as claimed at the time.

And here’s where an inch of knowledge on telecom gets you into trouble when you try wading into the ocean. The fiber itself is fine. Most of the work is in digging trenches, attaching to poles, putting in conduit, and running the lines. The electronics, while vital, are a relatively small portion of the overall network. It’s also worth noting that the 100Mbps electronics put in place almost a decade ago are still providing a service that neither Comcast nor CenturyLink can match or beat. That’s some pretty good longevity on any network equipment.

It’s worth noting that Google is deploying 1Gbps electronics when 10Gbps, 40Gbps, even 100Gbps electronics exist. Would the author slam Google for being behind the curve over that, making the same dubious claims over “future-proof” networks? Of course not. Any network is designed to take advantage of the best you can get for the money now and plan for upgrades in the future. It’s become painfully obvious that neither incumbent has done a particularly good job of doing so.

[W]ireless networking has greatly increased its speed and range, and cellular data has moved from a novelty to a mainstay of most cell phone plans.

Again, Mr. Platt gets in trouble by talking about technical things without any technical knowledge. Wireless almost always depends on fiber backhaul. When you use microwave backhaul like Clearwire and Sprint, you end up introducing a lot of latency into the connection which renders it unsuitable for any real-time application. Wireless also hasn’t come anywhere near catching up to fiber in terms of speed. It’s just barely starting to get to a point where a wireless ISP can offer up 100Mbps speeds.

It’s also comical to cite cellular as an alternative when, again, the speeds can’t match wireline. Even the best LTE connection can barely muster a real-world speed on par with CenturyLink’s oh-so-hard-to-find top-tier ADSL2+ product. That’s only going to drop as more LTE devices get into the hands of consumers. Most of those cellular plans come replete with very low caps, high overage charges, or some kind of throttling or filtering which makes them completely unsuitable for business use and hardly an alternative for residential users.

In the long run, it’s still unclear whether and how long wired internet connections will be relevant.

I think the preceding two paragraphs lay this one to rest. If wireline was dying, why would Verizon have poured billions into it, to the chagrin of investors, especially when they own America’s largest cellular company? Why would Google be pursuing deals in various cities to promote fiber-to-the-home? Why is FTTH so explosively popular in Hong Kong, Seoul, and Tokyo? This is yet another point on which Mr. Platt falls on rhetoric as a substitute for knowledge and comes up lacking. While companies like CenturyLink who lack the will and/or ability to upgrade their wireline networks are dying a slow and painful death, that has everything to do with being a terribly run business, not the relevance of their industry.

Most importantly, Internet service is far outside the essential role of government.

This is a common refrain, and it often comes with a big dose of selective outrage. The telecom sector has been rife with government intervention and cronyism almost since its inception. AT&T was a legally-protected monopoly right up until they were broken up in 1984. The major players in the industry got huge tax breaks in the Telco Act of 1996, the price of which has surpassed $300B. Google, on whom Mr. Platt lavishes praise, has received massive tax and financial benefits from the local governments where they plan to do business. Where is the outrage here? Or is the outrage reserved for when public money isn’t being spent on private enterprise? Sir, your principles ring hollow.

[T]hank you Google for buying out network at the appropriate price of $1.

The over-simplification of what the deal actual is shows yet more layers of gross ignorance. The network had an assessed value of $25M, and much of that had to do with the negative perception created by a string of grossly incompetent private providers (HomeNet, Mstar, Broadweave). For an economics professor, he’s not doing such a great job at following the money.

But this is where Mr. Platt’s true motivation sneaks on out in all of its ugly glory:

Please, let your monthly utility bill stir thoughts about the proper role of government. If this reflection somehow prevents citizens and politicians alike from future misadventures into private enterprise, it just might be worth it.

Translation: I’m glad that you can suffer and the taxpayers can be thrown under the bus in order to prove my ideological points. I’d do it again in a moment.

This kind of attitude is far too prevalent in the discourse about both iProvo and UTOPIA. The idea that making the projects fail in order to make taxpayers suffer so that you can be vindicated on your prediction is abhorrent at best. If you see someone with this attitude trying to get into any kind of government position, you’d do best to run in the other direction. Fast.

It’s sad that there’s no shortage of people who are confident in their lack of knowledge, nor that they spend so much time trying to get their ill-informed opinions into print. Let’s just hope that they become footnotes in the debate rather than carrying any real gravitas.

How likely is it that your town gets Google Fiber next? Not very

If your neighbor won the lottery, would you quit your job right then because you’re certain that your ticket is going to pay off next? Of course you wouldn’t. Unfortunately, a lot of people are taking that same kind of attitude with regards to broadband. Even before Google announced that they would take over iProvo, a common refrain was “I’ll just sit back and wait for Google to come to me”. If you believe that you’re going to get fiber for nothing, you’re in for a very rude awakening. Let’s take a look at places Google has already announced for why.

Kansas City, KS/MO

I’m sure most folks were scratching their heads when the first Google Fiber town got named. Why would a run-down midwestern town with little more to claim that Sprint’s HQ in neighboring Overland Park be worthy of landing The Big G and its fiber project? The answer is that the “free” broadband came at a very steep price.

The development agreement between Google and Kansas City stipulates that “Google will bear all costs for the [Fiber] project.” Yet it goes on to guarantee the company:

  • Free power
  • Free office space for Google employees
  • Expedited permits and inspections (with fees waived)
  • Free marketing, including direct mail
  • Free right-of-way easements (i.e. Google can build anywhere they want without compensating the city for noise or increased traffic)
  • The right to approve or reject any public statements city city makes about Fiber

We don’t know yet what this will cost the city to essentially build a replacement monopoly (one that has already signed 90% of the city), but you can bet that the “benevolent monopoly” (as IGN called them) won’t stay that way.

Austin, TX

Long before Google had announced Fiber, Austin had been trying to form its own municipal network. Unfortunately for them, Texas is one of the states that outright banned municipal networks which may have cost them first city status. Google came back despite this because Austin had already shown that it was willing to do the work. And while the terms of their deal don’t seem to be as public as Kansas City or Provo (I couldn’t find them), you can bet that similar concessions were made.

Provo, UT

And now in our backyard, we have Provo and its iProvo network. The city started getting this network going with discussions in the late 90’s. Construction started in 2001. The city has been doing a lot of work to try and bring a world-class telecommunications platform into the city, and they still had to make Google one heck of a sweet deal to get them to take over.

Your City, UT?

Now I want you to ask yourself an honest question: what exactly has your city done to improve broadband? Other than maybe groveling at the feet of incumbent providers, I’d put my money on not a darn thing. How do you think Google will view that lack of initiative? Again, my money goes on not too favorably.

This leads to a follow-up question: if your city wasn’t willing to spend money on improving broadband before, what makes you so sure they’re ready to do it now? Did they even investigate joining UTOPIA? If they joined, did they support the UIA? If they got promises from Comcast and CenturyLink to do better, did you follow up to make sure they held up their end of the bargain? Yeah, exactly.

Like I said back in August, you need to do the work yourself. If you do, you’ll either get a network you built all on your own or Google may take notice and finish the job for you. Fortune favors the bold, and broadband is no exception. What you’ll get is equal to the effort you put in. Especially if it’s nothing.

How likely is it that Google Fiber takes over UTOPIA?

Even before Provo announced that Google Fiber would be taking over iProvo, there’s been a lot of speculation that Google Fiber could potentially take over UTOPIA. UTOPIA made their pitch with 1100 other cities, and I produced my own video explaining why a partnership would be a good deal for both parties. Since then, Google has drastically altered the original terms of the arrangement, throwing both open access and municipal involvement under the bus (unless you consider providing tons on concessions “involvement”). Despite Google and UTOPIA being in talks shortly after the RFI closed, I don’t think we’re likely to see any kind of takeover or partnership between the two unless there’s concessions from one or both sides.

I think the largest sticking point is going to be open access. UTOPIA has repeatedly stated that their goal is to offer a world-class infrastructure that any private company can use to provide services. It’s not just enough to provide a third pipe; the network must allow you to pick between companies that differentiate themselves on what they can do with it. This kind of competitive environment has been proven to drive innovation and lower consumer prices across the board. While I have no doubt that Google’s network will do both, it runs the risk of being so superior to existing options as to become a new monopoly.

Google’s focus has been on residential customers. While this is a critical segment for service, there’s almost no mention of business needs. Yes, small businesses and startups can probably do just fine using the same tier as residences, but many need more than that. UTOPIA’s biggest customer uses 20Gbps of bandwidth. If all of their users on the network were on gigabit, they’d need even more to keep up with all of them. The lack of focus on the business end of the pipe degrades the value of the gigabit connections for residential customers. UTOPIA has a complete end-to-end vision; Google does not.

Another problem is the financial terms of any arrangement between the two. Google got a very sweet deal on iProvo, effectively a perpetual free lease with a $1 security deposit. The city is still going to have to pay off the debt on the asset themselves. In exchange, they’re hoping that improvements done to the network will improve it enough that it will be an economic net positive. I think the city could have negotiated a better deal and Google would still be doing well on it financially. I have no doubt that the UTOPIA cities, who are much more eager to pay off the bond, would hold fast for better terms.

If the numbers from iProvo translate to UTOPIA, Google would have to spend somewhere in the range of $40-50M to connect houses currently passed by the fiber and upgrade them to gigabit. This doesn’t include building fiber rings to areas not yet covered. That could easily add another $150-200M to the tab. Should they manage decent take rates (35% of customers paying for service split evenly between Internet-only and double play, and another 35% taking the freebie service), they’d earn $78.1M per year on expenses (including the bond) of about $36M per year. At the high end of finishing the network, it would take them almost six years to break even.

Given that Google seems to be aiming for seven-year commitments, that might be a price they’re unwilling to pay. The cities would have to make some kind of concession to sweeten the pot, and it would likely include tossing existing providers off the network and covering at least some portion of the bond debt. These actions would cause a decent amount of backlash both from residents as a whole and the power user subscribers who have been evangelizing the network for years. If Google’s goal truly is to increase broadband penetration, I’d like to think they would accept any offer that doesn’t make them lose a small fortune.

Google Fiber: The best deal Provo deserves, but not the best deal it can get

Yep, that’s my final take on Google Fiber taking over iProvo: even though you can, you’re not willing to do any better, so go ahead and take the deal.

Google is effectively getting a free lease on the network for a $1 security deposit. Yes, legally, it’s getting “sold” for $1, but Provo has the right to buy it back for the purchase price if Google either doesn’t meet its service and upgrade obligations or decides to stop providing service. That may sound like a decent deal with Google pumping $18M in upgrades into it, but Provo doesn’t have the best track record with getting ownership back, do they?

Meanwhile, Provo is left holding the debt and paying $39.6M over the next twelve years. The city seems to value the network asset at just $25M, and other offers to buy the network were low-balled at $10M. Why has so much value disappeared? It’s because of a string of poor choices with service providers. First there was HomeNet. Then Mstar. Then Broadweave. By the time Veracity came to the table, they didn’t have quite enough oomph to overcome the immeasurable brand damage done by their predecessors. A network that used a $40M bond and who knows how much in federal grants  (which is what built the initial fiber rings) has managed to lose value simply based on perception.

I think Provo can do better. My back-of-the-napkin math is that Google picks up 70% of the total subscribers in town. Half of those are likely to use the free service and pay in one-time revenues of $367K, barely anything in the big picture. Of the remaining half, I’d bet they’ll be evenly split between Internet-only and double play for an average monthly ARPU of $95 each. That works out to about $14M per year in revenues.

On the expenses side, the upgrades are costing Google about $2.57M per year over the seven-year commitment. If Google were to assume the bond payments (and let’s assume they end as soon as they leave), they would still have $8.13M annually to cover expenses related to network operations. This doesn’t even include the revenues that Google is likely to get from TV ad revenue. In short, Google could both assume the bond and do well financially.

That said, I don’t think the council is going to try pushing for those terms, even if they are a win-win. Just as with most things in Provo politics, the die has been cast by the executive and council approval is merely a formality. The short public review period of under a week makes it perfectly clear that questioning the deal is not welcome. I think this deal is a neutral as it currently stands, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a bit of buyer’s remorse down the road.

I was wrong about Google Fiber, but this isn’t a golden deal for the city either

After more than a few false rumors concerning Google Fiber in Utah, I dismissed the latest one as being as equally untrue. Boy was I wrong. Like so wrong that I probably can’t express it myself. (That’s okay; plenty of you are doing it for me, some more kindly than others.) I seriously overestimated Provo’s aversion to risk, and it appears they are putting a lot on the line to make this deal work with Google. I’m not convinced that the city is getting a very good deal. I’m also worried that these important details are getting ignored in your excitement to have a big name like Google running what has been a heavily abused asset. (Seriously, you folks who put up with Mstar? My condolences.)

The basic terms of the deal is that Google gets to take over iProvo for $1, effectively giving the $50M network away. The city maintains bond payments of $3.3M per year for the next twelve years as Google will not be assuming the debt. The city is effectively giving them $90M to take over the network in a no-bid process. Google can also walk away when the seven year deal is finished, leaving the city with none of the assets and five more years of bond payments. Google has to spend a scant $18M to provide gigabit services to 35K households. If they get a take rate of just 20% for Internet-only (a ridiculously low-ball estimate), they’ve made their money back in only three years. You can bet that more than a few other companies and providers would have liked to get that deal. For all of the accusations I made of giving the network away in prior arrangements, this one makes them look fair by comparison.

In order for this to break even on the rather immense subsidy being granted, the city will need to earn an average of $12.9M per year in new tax revenue for each of the seven years. Based on the city’s 2012 filing with the State Auditor’s Office, this would equate to an almost 35% increase in total tax revenues. Given that the amount of land left to be developed in the city is relatively small, I can’t see a way in which the city actually accomplishes this. Google is making easy money at the city’s expense.

So what are you getting for your money? For a one-time fee of $30 (assuming you already have the connection in your home), you can get 5Mbps service for seven years, the length of Google’s commitment. (The standard packages of $70/mo for gigabit Internet or $120/mo with TV will be available.) City facilities get gigabit for free for the seven-year period. Each household will effectively be paying $368.57 per year in bond payments and the loss of the asset, so jack those prices up about $30.71 per month.

Is it a good deal? That remains to be seen. A lot of you are rightly excited to be getting the kinds of speeds that UTOPIA customers have been enjoying for almost a year now. But this isn’t a bailout. This isn’t a free lunch. You’re paying a pretty goodly amount for this arrangement, and you should be asking if it’s worth it. I know I am.

No, Google Fiber Is Not Coming to Provo

Update: Yep, I totally missed this one, the one time out of dozens that it actually proves to be true. Glad the troll commenters are having a good time with it.

Provo (or, more specifically, Mayor John Curtis’ office) has been hyping up an “epic announcement” for weeks now. Somewhere in the speculation came a number of rumors that Google Fiber would be swooping in to either take over or supplant iProvo. Quite frankly, that’s an absolute load of malarkey. Nothing in the history of either Provo’s handling of its fiber optic assets or Google’s launch of Google Fiber cities would suggest anything like it.

For starters, we have to consider the way in which Google announces new fiber cities. Its history has been to send out a press release at least a few days out to generate buzz and send invitations to the tech and national press. This is not a company that announced these kinds of projects without a serious amount of fanfare.

Google also has a history of liking to roll its own solutions. One of the ways it got so big so fast was to create servers based on their own custom specs, not buying expensive off-the-self servers. Google Fiber is no different. They seem to relish the idea of starting from scratch and making something uniquely theirs. iProvo would require extensive upgrades to support 1Gbps connections and an entire head-end replacement to support modern MPEG-4 video.

There’s also the point of Google’s tacit support for municipal networks. Swooping in to take over a network would undermine their unspoken support for poking incumbent operators in the eye. Their goal has always been to shame ISPs into providing better service, even if that means throwing them under the bus in favor of municipal options. Taking over a network doesn’t match up with that at all.

The kicker, though, is Google’s terms for setting up shop. So far, Google has set it up so that they can walk away from their network if they decide it’s not for them. That probably sits just fine in Kansas City and Austin where they aren’t really on the hook for much. But Provo? They’ve spent half a decade trying to run away from iProvo. Any deal that doesn’t involve them washing their hands of the network would be anathema to every single action the city has undertaken under two different mayors and a lot of different council members.

Make no bones about it: Provo is not getting the bailout it so desperately desires. Hyping up these rumors does nothing to actually fix the situation, but it does distract from real looming problems like Veracity’s lease of the network expiring in two months. Instead of trying to find a white knight savior, it’s time for Provoans to demand that their elected officials address the elephant in the room instead of continuing to punt.

PS I’ve already told you to stop daydreaming and build the same kind of network that Google is. What are you waiting for?

The Google Fiber Pipe Dream (or, Stop Dreaming and Do the Work Yourself, Lazybutt)

Google Fiber has managed to keep people excited for quite some time now. Dozens of cities did everything from present solid cases for building there to engaging in wacky stunts (like swimming in frozen lakes) to try and get the attention from the Mountain View company. Even after selecting Kansas City, MO (and a number of its surrounding suburbs) as the site for their build, many cities keep on insisting that they can somehow catch the Internet giant’s attention and score their own golden ticket. Make no mistake: I compare it to the prize bestowed by Willy Wonka because it’s just about as likely to happen.

Far too many people lose sight of what Google really is: an advertising company. Everything they do is centered around the idea that they can sell advertising. In the process, they create really awesome tools that get eyeballs. Google’s search product is still the gold standard. Gmail is more popular than any other webmail product. Android displaced everything but the iPhone to fight for the number one smartphone platform. What do these all have in common? They increase your exposure to Google’s ad platform, but they don’t incur a significant cost to do so. Even Google’s self-driving car is an attempt to free up commute time for, you guessed it, looking at their ads. This is why Google makes money hand over fist.

The question that should be asked is how Google Fiber fits into this mission. Yeah, it kind of encourages you to spend more time using their services, and it does create a way for them to directly sell TV advertising, but the capital costs of fiber are huge, especially when using active Ethernet. Google is on-track to make somewhere in the range of $12B+ in profits this year. The cost of deploying fiber optics nationwide is somewhere in the $300-400B range, and it runs an average of around $1500-2000 per served home. That would be a huge investment into a venture not guaranteed to break even. The history of overbuilders is littered with failed companies. Google in unlikely to sink a significant portion of its revenues into additional buildouts, so the odds of your city getting a break are pretty slim.

And that’s the point. Google isn’t going to build in cities that beg louder and more often. Heck, they might not build in any more cities at all. It selected Kansas City because there are major backbone fiber routes there (Sprint has its HQ in neighboring Overland Park, KS) and the city could provide expedited right-of-way. Does your city meet those criteria? Probably not. In fact, your city is probably only saying “but we really REALLY want it” and hoping that’s enough. Well, it’s not. Kansas City did the work to create an environment Google would want to sink their dollars into. What has, say, Lehi done? Arguably nothing but get their begging published in the Daily Herald.

That’s the lesson to be learned: if you actually want a fiber network, you’re going to need to do some work. By the time you’d be an attractive target for Google Fiber, you’re about 90% of the way towards building it yourself, either as a co-op or a municipal network. At that point, do you really want to spend years or decades hoping that Google or another company will do for you what you could do for yourself?