from the mission-not-accomplished dept
We’ve mentioned several times how Google Fiber’s promise to revolutionize the broadband sector never really materialized. There’s a long list of reasons for that, from incumbent ISPs suing to stop Google’s access to utility poles, to Alphabet executives suddenly getting bored with the high cost and slow pace of deploying fiber and battling entrenched monopolies.
As it stands, Google Fiber’s expansions are largely on pause as company executives figure out how much money they’re willing to spend, what the wireless future looks like, and whether Alphabet really wants to participate. That said, while Google Fiber’s actual footprint pales in comparison to the hype, the service was a success in that it generated a quality, nationwide conversation about the sorry state of U.S. broadband competition, and spurred some otherwise apathetic incumbent ISPs to actually up their game, as countless cities nationwide decried the terrible state of existing service.
That point was driven home this week in this piece by Blair Levin and Larry Downes. In it, the two quite correctly note that Google Fiber not only pushed incumbents to expand more fiber, but also resulted in incumbent ISPs offering dramatically lower rates in markets where Google Fiber was deployed. This is, as you may already know, how real competition is supposed to work:
“It stimulated the incumbents to accelerate their own infrastructure investments by several years. New applications and new industries emerged, including virtual reality and the Internet of Things, proving the viability of an ?if you build it, they will come? strategy for gigabit services. And in the process, local governments were mobilized to rethink restrictive and inefficient approaches to overseeing network installations.”
I wrote something very similar on this subject back in 2015, noting that Google Fiber (read: actual competition) did more for broadband in a short period than the FCC’s 2010 “national broadband plan,” a collection of politically-timid policy goals set forth by Obama’s first FCC boss, Julius Genachowski. Like most of the things Genachowski did, the plan carefully avoided offending anyone, barely addressed the overall lack of competition in the market, and (as the FCC likes to do) set forth a number of policy “goals” that would have been met with our without the plan’s guidance.
Levin, who played a starring role in crafting that plan, sent me numerous e-mails complaining about my original piece, yet several years later returns to make many of the same points. That said, Levin and Downes go on to notably oversell the lasting impact Google Fiber’s effort is going to have on the (still quite broken) U.S. broadband market. There’s an odd effort to suggest the broadband market has been permanently fixed by Google’s now-shelved ambitions. Case in point:
“Though Google appears to have paused future deployments, the broadband business has permanently changed. Fiber investments by former telephone companies have accelerated or restarted. More advanced DSL using fiber-copper hybrid technology was rushed into operation, as were new fiber-to-the-home services from AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier. Cable companies once again upgraded their technology, accelerating deployment of gigabit-capable standards. New technologies ? including low-orbit satellites and ?fixed wireless? ? were developed for remote and rural locations.
The two-tiered market of high-speed cable and lower-speed DSL broadband has given way to a free-for-all, forcing adoption of more disruptive strategies by incumbents and new entrants alike. The result is increased competition between providers and among cities and regions eager for game-changing private investment.”
Reading that, you’d think it was mission accomplished. But Levin and Downes fail to even mention how incumbent ISPs continue to sue many cities that try to modernize their rules if they favor competition. They also ignore how many potential Google Fiber customers are immensely frustrated by delays, cancelled installations, and empty hype as Google Fiber figures out what it wants to do next. But most importantly, the piece ignores that despite Google Fiber, the broadband competition problem in the United States continues to get worse in many markets.
One, without Google Fiber or an equivalent prompting them to, most telcos have refused to upgrade aging DSL lines to fiber at any real scale. That has resulted in cable incumbents like Comcast securing a bigger monopoly than ever across a huge swath of the states, and numerous areas where fast broadband simply doesn’t exist (especially if you’re poor). And while Downes/Levin look to wireless to magically fix this mono/duopoly, companies like AT&T and Verizon still enjoy monopoly control over the backhaul fiber used to feed cellular towers (and everything ranging from ATMs to schools).
So yes, Google Fiber helped generate a conversation about broadband competition, and even helped address the problem in a few areas. But we’ve taken numerous steps back since Google Fiber’s heyday. Especially given the Ajit Pai tactic of simply gutting most consumer protections and insisting that’s going to somehow magically fix the problem of natural broadband monopolies (another issue the authors just kind of casually ignore as if it’s not relevant to solving the current problem).
The broadband market is a complicated mess, and is going to require an ocean of creative solutions, from serious policy that encourages competition, to local public/private partnerships where local governments play a role in improving connectivity to lower ROI markets. Yes, Google Fiber highlighted the problem. But its solution was a temporary one, and most would-be competitors lack the resources allowing them to bang their heads against a regulatory captured, broken market. So yes, Google Fiber taught us some valuable lessons, but it’s entirely unclear if those lessons have actually been learned.