The need for speed: Where the Google Fiber road leads

For the last couple of years, discussions about gigabit-speed internet in Louisville were similar to the miles of fiber-optic cable lying dormant beneath the city’s streets: something obscure and technical, of interest mostly to engineers and infrastructure nerds. Then, AT&T sued the city on Feb. 25 over an ordinance intended to fast-track Louisville’s potential transformation into a Google Fiberville.

And suddenly our local internet connection made national headlines. Industry watchers believe the suit could slow down Google’s ability to crack new markets in the U.S.

Claiming the moral high ground, Chris Levendos, Google Fiber’s director of National Deployment and Operations, intoned in a blog post the next day, “Google Fiber stands with the City of Louisville and the other cities across the country that are taking steps to bring faster, better broadband to their residents.”

Faster. Better.

But will such speed really be better for Louisville and take us where we need to go, or could there be trouble ahead?

City governments around the country don’t seem to view this as a stranger-with-candy scenario, maybe because the candy is being proffered from the stranger’s shiny, self-driving sports car — the Google empire. The future viability of local jobs and businesses depends on the bandwidth to move data around faster, they believe, because the economy is increasingly driven by data — from logistics and manufacturing to healthcare.

“Not having [high-speed broadband] would be disruptive to life. It’s that basic a service,” said Ted Smith, Louisville’s chief innovation officer.

Investors and tech types tend to look through even rosier lenses, seeing better internet infrastructure as the seedbed of innovation just waiting to blossom.

“Having Google Fiber is cool. It’s super fast — way more than almost any family would need. Businesses? Whole different ballgame,” said Richard Meadows, a member of an informal city advisory group who owns the Hacker Hostel startup space in Portland. “Ford, GE, UPS: those are the big companies, but it’s the little things that those companies do that could get more efficient.”

Five years ago, Kansas City became the first city to get Google Fiber.

“Some thought we might see a particular growth in startups that really needed the bandwidth, like virtual reality or big data companies,” said Aaron Deacon, managing director of the non-profit Kansas City Digital Drive. “We’ve seen some of that for sure, but I don’t know if the growth in startup culture and entrepreneurial focus has been as tied to the network as we thought it would be.”

What fiber may mean for Louisville

Google has never explained why it climbed down from its internet cloud to roll wires along the ground in the first place. No one seems to think it’s about making money. The consensus among industry analysts and investors is that Google is less interested in being an internet service provider itself than it is in shaming, or scaring, the incumbent providers into upgrading their own offerings. With higher speeds and bandwidth, the logic goes, people will use the internet more, thereby generating the search-result real estate on which Google already sells advertising, as well as generating valuable user data it can harvest for its own purposes.

When asked how AT&T viewed Google as a potential competitor, company spokeswoman Cathy Lewandowski said in an e-mail, “We are confident in our position in the market.” Her statement referenced AT&T’s December 2015 promise to bring its own fiber service, GigaPower, to Louisville, following a similar pattern in other cities where Google Fiber has been announced.

Charter (formerly Time Warner) declined to comment for this story.

If fiber internet networks are the Roman aqueducts of our time, places not connected to them will be cut off from the trade, culture and, not least, the prestige of the empire. Making Louisville a Fiber city will “put us on the map,” say fiber boosters, empowering ordinary citizens through information and opportunity while providing businesses with a competitive differentiator.

“It’s like having a modern water treatment-system,” Smith said. “You don’t want to be the dirty-water-city.”

The point of contention in the lawsuit is the so-called one-touch, make-ready ordinance passed by Metro Council that would expedite Google’s ability to run fiber in the rights of way for Louisville and other urban areas of Jefferson County. This means laying the groundwork for Google, or other competing internet service providers, to disrupt the current AT&T-Charter duopoly. But there’s more to this than who gets to drape cable on whose utility poles, or market competition.

It’s really about the distribution of power and resources in the world today.

Also: If you listen between the bullet points recited by entrepreneurs and government officials on why having fiber-optic Internet is a 21st-century necessity, you may pick up a background concern about being modern. The conventional wisdom is that you have to be fast to keep pace with the changes of our time: You cannot run, drive or fly toward the future so much as hurtle towards it.

“Information is inseparable from its acceleration in energy terms,” wrote Paul Virilio, self-styled philosopher of speed, in his book, “The Information Bomb.” “It is not the medium which is the message, but merely the velocity of the medium.”

Of digital leaders and laggards

Today the internet landscape in America is a patchwork of low-bandwidth fiefdoms controlled by telecom rulers AT&T, Comcast or Charter. A full three-quarters of the U.S. population has only one choice of provider for high-speed internet, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In a market that is so concentrated, consumers have to take what they can get. And what they get is generally not very good.

“Most Asian and European cities provide broadband service in the 25 to 50 megabits per second (Mbps) speed range at a better value on average than North American cities,” concluded a 2014 report entitled “The Cost of Connectivity” by the Open Technology Institute. Actually, even those speeds would be nice to have: The average internet connection speed in America falls in the range of 10-15 megabits per second (my own result from the speeduplouisville.com website, taken at my co-working space, was 14.42 Mbps), meaning a gigabit connection would be many times faster than what most of us are used to today.

This lack of speed is surprising, given the value we place on being technologically advanced, but thanks to an equally American mix of corporate lobby power and after-the-fact regulation, the internet service provider industry has shown itself to be anything but competitive or innovative. Not to mention leaving a lot of the country out — both geographically and economically.

Some cities and towns around the U.S. have elected to build their own broadband infrastructure, in lieu of a commercial alternative. There are currently over 50 communities in 19 states that have a publicly-owned network offering at least one-gigabit services, according to Muninetworks.org, a community broadband advocate organization. Chattanooga, Tennessee, is often cited as the poster child in our region of a city that has made it happen. Through its public utility company, broadband service in Chattanooga goes up to 10 gigabits per second, while 1 gigabit is the midrange offering.

Would a publicly owned network have been an option for Louisville? “We looked at it,” Ted Smith said. “A tremendous amount of investment would be needed to reach all homes over a 300 square mile area.”

Bridging the digital divide, or wiring it?

Bringing the internet to everyone is as much a sociological problem as it is a logistical one. Less than half of the nation’s poorest families have a wired internet subscription at home, and more than 60 million Americans lack basic digital literacy, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Communities of color, the elderly and women are disproportionately affected by economic, social and educational barriers to both getting online and using digital resources effectively.

“We see broadband access and adoption as related, but distinct,” said Sarah Morris, director of Open Internet Policy at the Open Technology Institute. “Digital literacy trainings and hands-on advice and support are really important and tend to occur most successfully at community level, through trusted partners at places where people already get support to go online, such as public libraries.”

Joe McNealy is trying to be that trusted partner in Louisville. The local entrepreneur is behind efforts to build a community WiFi network in West Louisville called TheWirelessFreeway.

McNealy’s project aims to not only bring ultra-high-speed connectivity to about 3,000 households in the Portland, Shawnee and Russell neighborhoods, but also to offer tiered levels of service ranging from basically free (paying a $20/month service charge) to $110/month for unlimited TV, VOIP phone and internet. Based on the idea of an economic cooperative, the Freeway would turn its subscribers into member-owners with their own financial stake in expanding and improving the service.

“I’m focusing on building the technological capacity of individuals,” McNealy said. He envisions his high-speed network enabling both a new generation of entrepreneurs — data-scraping applications and virtual in-home health care are two other business ideas he believes could be viable — as well as meeting more basic needs around online access to employment and education in a community where about a third of residents don’t have internet at home.

Churches represent one community institution that could be tapped as sites to offer digital literacy outreach. McNealy and an engineer friend started a computer lab with a high-speed internet connection about 18 months ago at First Gethsemane Baptist Church, where students from nearby housing projects could do their homework after school. “[Recently] the schools came to us and asked how we got the kids from Park Hill and surrounding areas to the lab, because the kids are doing tremendously, much better than when the computer lab wasn’t accessible,” he said.

Still, his Freeway remains a dream in need of funding. McNealy estimated he’d need $1.5-$2 million from the city to get it going.

In the meantime, he welcomes the idea of Google Fiber coming to town and does not see it as competition. “My mother and grandmother always said every little bit helps,” he said, chuckling, but then turning serious. “The difference between their model and ours is that our focus is on the needs of the community, while they are focusing on the profits they can make from the community for the benefit of their shareholders.”

Expect to pay

This brings us back to one of the less shiny-happy-people aspects of the conversation about high-speed broadband: It’s not only expensive infrastructure to build, but it’s also costly for consumers.

Google Fiber’s $70/month gigabit offering may be better value than the measly 15 megabits for the same money offered by the incumbent internet service providers, but that’s still a price point beyond the reach of many.

In Kansas City, officials had to work with Google to get internet to the least-wired places.

“When Google Fiber first launched, we noticed a striking trend — low-income neighborhoods weren’t signing up for the service but higher-income neighborhoods were,” said Joni Wickham, chief of staff to Kansas City Mayor Sly James. The city worked with Google to address the issue through community broadband hook-ups at public housing, community centers and schools. More recently, Google announced a partnership with the federal ConnectHome program, whereby residents in public housing properties connected to Google Fiber may receive gigabit service for free. The program launched in February of this year at one public housing project in Kansas City with 100 homes.

“Looking forward, we plan to bring gigabit internet to select affordable housing in all of our Fiber cities,” wrote Google Fiber Vice President Dennis Kish in a blog post.

City on bended knee, woos Google

Officially, Louisville is still only a “potential” Fiber city. The process started several years ago, when Google began accepting applications for more Fiber cities, following its inaugural rollout in Kansas City. Louisville applied, and kept applying. And Mayor Greg Fischer and his team did more than fill out the 16-page Google Fiber checklist. Shading the line between suitor and stalker, the city pressed itself upon its would-be partner, signaling shared values and interests as well as the willingness to make up-front commitments.

“Every time Mayor Fischer was in D.C., or at a mayors’ conference, he would meet with Google,” Smith said. “Every time there was a program Google offered, we participated. We worked harder than anyone else.”

In parallel, a group of local business people came together to advise the city’s innovation office on what it would look like for Louisville to be fiber-friendly.

Cue scenes of men in business casual with take-out coffee, scribbling on white-boards and poring through municipal ordinances. In 2013, the standard telecommunications franchise term was changed from 15 years to the state maximum of 20 (opening the field to all potential new providers — not just Google, Smith is careful to add).

“We put out a heat-map website for everyone to put their address in, so we could show where there was interest for fiber,” said Richard Meadows.

Then, the announcement came in September 2015 that Google was officially “exploring” bringing its brand-name Fiber to Louisville.

Meadows, for one, was jubilant.

Products and services involving large datasets, from 3D-printing to medical files to business analytics, would benefit most immediately from so much bandwidth.

The city’s Ted Smith sees Google’s entry into the market as a step into the future of not-yet-envisioned services and products.

“The early gigabit conversations were mostly about white middle-class jobs — artists and engineers — but really for me it’s about birthing new tiers of service,” Smith said.

What might those tiers look like?

An April Fool’s Day post on the Google Fiber blog suggested that teleportation might be the next big thing enabled by big bandwidth, but those aren’t the only ones.

Big data flowing through big pipes also makes a nice setup for Big Brother.

Smart City or Surveillance-ville?

One of the knock-on effects of Kansas City becoming the first Google Fiber municipality is its Smart City initiative, which would include things like automatically adjusting streetlights or re-routing traffic patterns in response to changing conditions. What this means in practice, however, is doing in the real world with video cameras and sensors what tech companies already do online with cookies and server logs: following people around, and collecting information on what they do.

“Some of the open data stuff and privacy regulation that has come out of Smart City deployment is an area that has not necessarily been a natural consequence of connectivity,” said Aaron Deacon. “But we need to start thinking about our open data policy and also how you manage citizen data being made available.” In other words, privacy may not be the first concern when we think of gigabit broadband, but it’s likely to be one that lasts long after the hook-up.