With much fanfare, Google recently announced plans to bring its sought-after Google Fiber internet service to its Silicon Valley homeland. Over the next three years, officials with the tech giant promised to roll out its ultra-fast, 1-gigabit-per-second bandwidth to consumers in Mountain View, Palo Alto and several other South Bay cities.
The promise has been hailed by many observers as a much-needed shake-up for the local telecommunications market. But to hear the story from other areas already equipped with Google Fiber, the new service might not be the overnight sensation its fans anticipate.
Take the example of Kansas City, the original pilot location for Google Fiber's launch. Back in 2012, the Midwest city seemed the envy of the nation for being picked to debut the premier internet service. And in some ways, it was a perfect testing ground: the local broadband internet market was controlled largely by Time Warner Cable, which had a reputation for lousy customer service and sneaky fees (just check its Yelp page).
But after almost five years of Google Fiber expanding its availability, Kansas City's internet market is still dominated by Time Warner, according to sources. This is despite a Google Fiber bargain deal: six years of 5-megabit-per-second internet for households willing to pay a one-time $300 fee. But today only a "few small pockets" of well-heeled Kansas City neighborhoods have heavily embraced Google Fiber, said Tom Esselman, CEO of Connecting for Good, a Kansas City-based nonprofit focusing on expanding internet access to disenfranchised residents.
"The whole idea behind of Google Fiber of 'build it and they will come,' -- that's been blown up in the last five years," he said. "It was plainly evident that just because they were Google Fiber and had a lot of hoopla, they were not effectively getting people signing up for their service."
Google Fiber officials declined to respond to questions about its Kansas City pilot program for this story.
Esselman describes himself as a big fan of Google Fiber's speedy service, pointing out he loves its ability to, for example, have multiple video chats running seamlessly on his desktop. In the long run, he believes Google Fiber will gradually chip away at the market hold of the established telecommunications players.
But Google had to learn some big lessons first, he said. The company originally came into Kansas City with a "one-size-fits-all" pricing plan that didn't win many lower-income customers. In a write-up on Google Fiber service in Kansas City, the magazine Fast Company describe it as being like a "$4 ice-cream sandwich" -- "A welcome treat for people with disposable income, but still out of reach for others."
Google recently began offering a wider variety of service plans. Rather than focusing solely on offering the fastest service, Google Fiber officials in recent months have focused on computer-literacy programs for impoverished communities rather than focusing on early-adopter customers, Esselman said.
"Honestly, I think in the last six months the landscape for Google Fiber here has changed more than in the last five years," he said.
Silicon Valley and the South Bay makes up a vastly different consumer market for Google Fiber, with a strong tech-savvy population thirsty for ultra-fast bandwidth. Esselman says it was surely a strategic move to test out Google Fiber in a relatively isolated market like Kansas City before rolling out the service to the metropolitan coastal cities.
It's already abundantly clear that some residents can hardly wait for the service. In recent Mountain View meetings, seniors from local mobile-home parks have urged the city officials to advocate on their behalf to encourage Google Fiber to be brought to their neighborhoods. In some cases, neighbors have even proffered convenient times when the Google Fiber team could lay lines, such as when other utilities would be digging up trenches.
When it was announced in May that the service would be coming to Mountain View, Google Fiber officials said the service would be installed throughout the city over the course of three years. The company provided a citywide map showing the various network hubs and service lines they were planning throughout Mountain View.
Some neighborhoods were conspicuously absent from the map, but Google Fiber officials say that doesn't mean those neighborhoods will be excluded. Some areas will require negotiating access agreements for installation since they are privately owned, said Google spokeswoman Kelly Mason.
"We can't say whether a particular complex will or will not be served," Mason said via email. "Today, there are major apartment buildings, complexes, gated communities, mobile home parks, etc. that aren't on the (initial design) map. That doesn't mean we're not planning to serve these areas."