In Huntsville, Google is choosing to not build its own fiber network, but to lease access to a network that the city will operate. This is the first time that Google will enter a market without taking on the responsibility and cost of constructing a new network.
If Google repeats this model in other markets, it could be a boon to city and county-run fiber networks around the country, especially in those states where municipalities are not allowed to sell Internet service directly to consumers.
For example, Washington state law allows counties to operate their own fiber networks, but bars them from selling to consumers, resulting in people — like Consumerist reader Seth, who almost had to sell his house when neither Comcast nor CenturyLink would connect his home office to the Internet — living within reach of a muni broadband line but unable to connect to it.
There are companies that specialize in reselling access to these county-owned networks, but they tend to target large-scale customers like apartment buildings, schools, and corporate offices. A provider like Google Fiber may be more willing to handle dealing directly with individual consumers.
Even in states where the law allows muni broadband providers to sell to consumers, these cities and counties may not be equipped to deal with the all the billing and customer service issues associated with running a consumer-facing ISP.
Perhaps the biggest deal with the Huntsville announcement is that Google’s lease on the city’s fiber lines is not exclusive. Other providers are welcome to sell service and compete with Comcast and Google and AT&T on price.
“Now, cities can ensure everyone has access to the fiber and let ISPs compete over it, much as cities build roads and businesses use them to compete,” explains Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “Think of this like a shopping mall with an anchor tenant. This provides legitimacy for the model, will help cities secure financing, and entice other city leaders to follow Huntsville’s lead.”
In spite of all this, Comcast is still maintaining that it’s king of the hill in Huntsville.
“Nationally, we just announced a 1-gig product that will use the lines that already go into most homes and businesses and make gigabit speeds much more widely available,” a Comcast rep recently told AL.com.
The rep is referring to the test launch of new DOCSIS 3.1 technology, which provides Fiber-like speeds over existing cable lines. First, it’s misleading for the company to refer to this as a “national” announcement, as the new tech is only coming to parts of five cities at some point in 2016. Additionally, while DOCSIS 3.1 doesn’t require a new network, it does require that each end-user acquire a new 3.1-capable modem. It could take years for this service to roll out.
But even with the impending threat of competition from Google, Comcast won’t put even an approximate date on when it plans to bring 3.1 service to Huntsville.
Comcast is correct in saying that the new tech “has the potential to make ultra-fast speeds available more widely than fiber-to-the-home services,” but fails to mention that next-gen fiberoptic tech, dubbed NG-PON2, will soon allow Google and other fiber providers to significantly increase their network speeds without having to run new lines.
So by the time that Comcast is indeed marketing cable broadband as a competitor to fiberoptic service, Google Fiber could be selling service that is already ten times faster.
Comcast got to be the nation’s largest cable company, not by being the best, but by acquiring smaller regional providers. Now that it might face competition from Google Fiber, the wireless industry, and the telecoms, it may need to figure out how to actually provide a service that is worth the price it charges.