Friday, 26 August 2016

Google fiber : technicolour bunny no longer in the pink

Google Fiber has been an iconic presence in debates over superfast broadband and FTTH. Initially announced in 2010, the Google Fiber bunny lolloped into its first market, Kansas City, in 2012. It has since expanded to five other cities in the US, offering symmetric 1 Gbps service at low prices.

"No new internet product has generated as much excitement in the technology world as Google Fiber", said the FTTH Council in 2014. Indeed, for fiber enthusiasts, Google Fiber has been emblematic of what should be possible. Here was a preeminent technology company, backing fiber all the way to the home. The fusty old telcos and cablecos simply didn't get it.

What a difference a couple of years make.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported [$] that Google is "rethinking its high-speed internet business after initial rollouts proved more expensive and time consuming than anticipated". Today come reports that Google Fiber is laying off half its staff. The company is also changing its strategy, with a shift to using wireless technologies to connect homes, rather than fiber.

I suspect we'll hear rather less about Google Fiber from the likes of the FTTH Council. But actually there are some valuable lessons here:

  • It's way too glib to say FTTH is 'future proof'. New technologies (such as the milimeter wireless Google are now moving to) are proving quicker and cheaper to deploy, while delivering similar performance to FTTH
  • A further technology problem for FTTH is that cable can now deliver speeds of 1 Gbps and more. This means that there's less reason for consumers to switch to a new entrant (where cable's available), and also puts the new entrant at a significant cost disadvantge. Upgrading the cable plant is far cheaper than deploying new fiber. Cable operators in Google Fiber cities have done exactly this, almost certainly reducing Google's uptake
  • It's easy to underestimate the 'friction' involved in doing any work that touches the last few meters to people's houses. Google has been accused of causing flooding in Austin, for example. Less dramatically, issues of home access, damage to gardens and so on all drive up costs
There's no reason to scorn the Google Fiber bunny. Google is a company that proceeds by experimentation, and not all experiments work. In the light of their experience, and of developing technology, they are revising their strategy. Utterly sensible - and a useful case study for those who continue to believe that it must be FTTH or nothing.

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