When Google announced this week its decision to pull the plug on its plans to install fiber networks in various Silicon Valley cities, the news was disappointing but not surprising for Palo Alto officials.
The city has been talking about bringing ultra-high-speed Internet to the masses for nearly two decades and, most recently, it has been looking at Google Fiber as one of the more promising options for achieving this goal. Now, with Google deciding to halt its negotiations with “potential Fiber cities,” including Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Jose, city officials are preparing for another change of direction in their long journey toward high-speed Internet -- one that may rely less on fiber and more on wireless technology. The City Council will consider its next steps on fiber on Dec. 5.
Jonathan Reichental, the city's chief information officer, told the Weekly that Google's decision to halt the decision wasn't much of a shock. The city has been hearing about the company's setbacks in the area for several months and it has been preparing for the announcement, which came Tuesday by virtue of a blog post from Craig Barratt, who until recently served as senior vice president at Alphabet, Google's parent company. In the post, Barratt wrote that the company has “refined” its plan for delivering superfast Internet, a move that will have “immediate implications” for the current efforts.
For most of the company's “potential Fiber cities” (a group that also includes Portland, Tampa and Phoenix), the company has decided to “pause our operations and offices while we refine our approaches,” Barratt wrote.
“We’re ever grateful to these cities for their ongoing partnership and patience, and we’re confident we’ll have an opportunity to resume our partnership discussions once we’ve advanced our technologies and solutions,” Barratt wrote. “In this handful of cities that are still in an exploratory stage, and in certain related areas of our supporting operations, we’ll be reducing our employee base.”
Even before the post, Reichental said, the city saw the “writing on the wall” thanks to delays and growing expenses. The city had been looking forward to having Google offer its services to residents and its withdrawal will lead to “a few days of reflection over our disappointment.” And while the move could cause the city to look at new service models, it will not change the overriding objective of bringing ultra-high-speed Internet to the masses.
“The bottom line is, this will serve as a trigger for further innovation,” Reichental told the Weekly. “No one has lost interest in high-speed Internet.”
One promising model, Reichental said, is one referred to as “wireless fiber,” a model that incumbent Internet providers and experts in the field are increasingly looking at. This could mean bringing a fiber “backhaul” to blocks throughout the city and then installing wireless technology to give ultra-high-speed Internet to every home. That's expected to be one of the options that the council will look at during its December meeting.
Reichental also noted that even while Google has retreated from Palo Alto, other providers are still on pace to unveil their own ultra-high-speed Internet services over the next year. AT&T has a pending application for permits to launch its own service, AT&T Fiber (formerly known as GigaPower). The cable giant Comcast is also pursuing a gigabit-per-second service, an endeavor that will benefit from the fact that it will not have to install and new cables. Comcast's technology, known as DOCSIS, will allow the company to provide gigabit service through existing cables, Reichental said.
“In 2017, we should see permits and services becoming available across the city,” Reichental said.
It remains to be seen, however, what role Palo Alto's existing 41-mile “dark fiber” ring will play a role in the new world of gigabit service. In the past, city officials have viewed the small but profitable network, which serves dozens of mostly commercial customers, as the logical launching point for a citywide system.
Over the past few years, however, officials have been cautious about having the city both build and operate a citywide fiber network. Instead, they directed staff last fall to explore a possible partnership with a private-sector provider who would manage the city-owned system.