Is Google Fiber just another strawman?

In February, Google announced to the world that it  will build 1Gbps Optical Fiber test beds in a small number of trial locations across the United States.

Nearly every publication has jumped onto the bandwagon of talking about how neat Google’s Gigabit Fiber idea is. Daily the list of cities that want it in their backyard grows by leaps and bounds. Towns are posting videos on YouTube waving their collective arms saying “pick me”. Petaluma, California’s video  takes the angle of bringing jobs to town. Duluth, Minnesota has a tongue-in-cheek comedy approach. Cities are even willing to rename themselves as well as cut through bureaucratic red tape to speed up the permit requirements to install Google’s 1Gbps fiber backbone.

Isn’t it wonderful how generous Google is with its technology and money. Or could there be another agenda behind Google’s announcement? Let’s take a brief look at what is behind the Google plan.

In 2008, Congress passed the Broadband Data Improvement Act which required the FCC to include an international comparison in its annual report. From there, the FCC began to develop a plan to put high-speed Internet into all areas of America. Currently, there are more than 92 million Americans who do not have broadband at home. Until 2008, the FCC defined broadband service as data transmission speeds exceeding 200 kilobits per second (Kbps), in at least one direction, either downstream (from the Internet to the user’s computer) or upstream (from the user’s computer to the Internet). Yes, the world+dog knows that 200Kbps speeds are do-able on most smartphones, as well as on your home PC. In 2009, the FCC increased their Broadband Speed Definition to a whopping 768Kbps.

Last week, the FCC launched a set of digital tools – the Consumer Broadband Test and the Broadband Dead Zone Report  – enabling people to test their broadband service and report areas where broadband is not available for purchase at their household. The broadband test measures broadband quality indicators such as speed and latency, and reports that information to consumers and the FCC. There are also testing applications in the Apple and Android App stores available for free.

Our office is paying for and supposedly has ADSL Broadband with advertised speeds of 3000Kbps upload and 512Kbps download. As you see above, we are actually getting 86 percent of the advertised download rate and 83 percent of the advertised upload rate. In most of California, there is a 20 to 35 percent “optimistic” factor in the advertised Broadband speeds.

The real question for the FCC is with folks clamoring for real broadband, do you actually want to keep “protecting” under-performing incumbent telephone carriers?

Through tax breaks and increased service fees, the incumbent telcos have harvested an estimated $300 billion since the early 1990s to improve their subscriber phone lines in the US. At the All Things D conference in May 2007, when Senator John McCain was still seeking the Republican nomination for President, he told the audience, “When you control the pipe, you should be able to get profit from your investment.” 

What have the American consumers received for their $300 billion? Clearly not what was promised to be a fully installed: a 45Mbps optical fiber nationwide system by 2006.

In the US, the average ADSL Service over the old copper networks tops out at 4.2Mbps in most areas. Compared to the world, the US came in 18th overall in average connection speed at 4.2Mbps, above the global average of 1.7Mpbs, but more than 2.6 times slower than South Korea. South Korea is about the size of Indiana, the 38th geographically ranked state in the US.

Compare US Fibre pricing vs Korea and Japan in 2005

Worldwide, the average broadband connection generates 11.4 gigabytes of Internet traffic per month, or 375 megabytes per day, according to the Cisco Visual Networking Index. According to Cisco, the average broadband user generates traffic about equal to downloading 3,000 text e-mails per day or 100 MP3 music files per day. Isn’t it about time Verizon and other wireless carriers rethink their 5GB allowance?

On Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, the FCC plans to roll out to the US Congress their Broadband Internet Stimulus plan, which aims to mandate low-cost, high-speed, universal connectivity. The FCC’s vision is that every household should have 100Mbps Internet access within the next 10 years. However, Congress will have to draw up the implementation plan and telco lobbyists are already sharpening their collective knives to cut down the infrastructure requirements.

Commissioner Clyburn, Commissioner Copps, Chairman Genachowski, Commissioner McDowell, Commissioner Baker

Google’s February announcement of their 1Gbps Fiber test beds sent a shock wave through the incumbent telco providers. They remember how Google jumped into the 700MHz wireless frequency auction and then held back allowing AT&T and Verizon to out bid them for the spectrum. What did Google got out of that scenario?

Dane Jasper, at – one of the largest AT&T wholesale users of DSL in California, said: “Google’s entry in to the 700Mhz spectrum auction served a PR and political purpose. They created awareness and interest from the public in a process that largely went unnoticed prior to their involvement. For virtually no cost, Google created an open access dialogue, which furthers their interests.” Harold Feld at Public Knowledge, which is a Washington, DC-based public interest group, said “Google does not want to be a network operator, but it wants to be a network architect.”

This got us to wondering: Just how complex could it be to run a truly high-speed network for a 50,000 to 100,000 household region? Armchair quarterbacks have tossed out comments indicating that it would be very complicated to run Google’s Gigabit Fiber network.

We called on Jay Lemmons, from Technology at Work, who recently installed a state-wide, wireless-network with an IP-based fiber backbone for a public utility. We asked about his experiences with a large fiber backbone network that connects many distant radio towers.

Nice install weather, if you like snow

Lemmons said: “The administration is the same, the reliability and congestion issues are much less of a problem. The system diagnostics for a large 1Gbps system would be major. It is more survivable in wet weather and goes greater distances. That makes it a win-win for IT support.” He went on to explain it took as long as two months to get the proper permits, dig a trench, and install eighteen miles of ducting and fibre to one radio tower location. He considered that a short time compared to other sites that have taken literally years.

Nobody has seen any published specifications from Google on how it proposes to tie today’s wired technology to the fibre.

Jasper said that technically fibre is “wired”, while that stretches the term a bit, a fibre network is similar in daily operation for a telco or your ISP. In the case of DSL , copper wires go to a DSLAM (Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer). Coax wires go to a fibre fed node (in a cable hybrid fibre coax product. In contrast, the telco or ISP has its fibre network going to an ONT (optical network terminal) in the CO (Central Office).

Just how difficult is it to install fibre to your home? In 2005 Dan Bricklin, the co-developer of Visicalc, wrote a step-by-step article showing how easy it is once the fibre is at your front door. But, there is the big problem, getting fibre delivered to your street. Our office has had fibre three blocks away since 2001. Our neighborhood already has cable TV, so AT&T and Verizon don’t think they can get enough households to switch. Obviously, they haven’t asked the folks on our local Comcast cable system. They would find them ready to switch higher speeds, let alone 1Gbps, at the drop of a hat.

To install fibre into an office building is actually economical according to the Fiber Optic Association (FOA). In 2005, it explained that with fibre you aren’t limited to 90 meters, like you are with UTP (unshielded twisted pair) CAT 5e or CAT 6. With fibre, you don’t need horizontal and backbone links, you don’t even need a telecom closet. You just need one link, a pair of fibres straight from the desktop to the main telecom closet. You don’t need conditioned UPS (uninterrupted power supply) power for the hub, nor a separate data ground, nor racks and space for all that, nor installation and maintenance labor, nor air conditioning to get rid of all the heat. At most, with fibre you have an intermediate passive patch panel to connect desktop cables to the backbone cable and some extra fibres in the backbone cables.

What most people overlook is the cost of the wiring closet. Conditioned UPS power, data grounds, HVAC (even AC in winter because of all the heat generated by high speed electronics) and floor space are all on-going expenses. In 2005, FOA estimated the following costs per wiring closet:

Conditioned UPS Power $500-$5,000
Data Ground $500-$1,500
HVAC $250-$5,000 (you need year round AC)
Floor space: $100-$200/sq ft for 50-100 sq, ft. or more

These costs generally exceed the extra cost of fibre equipment in a centralized fibre architecture.

One of the most sophisticated optical fibre LAN installations anywhere is the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. They saved almost $4,000,000 by going to an all-fibre network. According to a Corning presentation, if the Getty Museum had used UTP CAT 6 cabling, it would have had to build 55 telecom closets in the museum, with hubs, multiple ducting runs, plus conditioned UPS power, at a cost of $73,000 per telecom closet. With their all-fibre network, they needed only one closet, saving an incredible amount of money (not to mention adding floor space for artwork, researchers, and paying visitors).

Google isn’t the only company
to be testing 1Gbps over Fiber. Shaw Communications will be installing it into the Canadian Internet market through the trial of Gigabit Internet technology.

The technology is 10 times faster than Shaw’s High-Speed Nitro Internet service, which currently runs at 100Mbps per second. Shaw High-Speed Nitro is Canada’s fastest Internet service. It is offered exclusively by Shaw in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver provinces.

The service will be delivered over FTTH (Fiber-to-the-Home) and will be able to support new and emerging Internet applications that require faster download speeds.

We don’t see Google hiring a lot of trenching companies to dig up the local streets of any city or town. Instead, they are going to be helping an existing optical fibre installation like UTOPIA. UTOPIA is a consortium of sixteen Utah cities that have joined together to create one of the nation’s largest, fastest, most robust fibre-optic networks, while giving customers the freedom to choose their own provider. There are similar, already installed, municipal optical fibre systems that are far more realistic to upgrade than trenching streets. They are a much more realistic choice than a “start from scratch, dig up the streets for several years, and make everybody very angry” install.

Congressional Representative Rick Boucher, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, said: “By putting a demonstration program in place to show Internet connections at extraordinarily high speeds, certainly as compared to speeds here in the US, and having an open network with network neutrality principles at its operational core, will serve as a useful demonstration. Perhaps that will build confidence in our broadband community and private sector broadband community that those applications will be attractive”.

Boucher’s comments reflect what Google did with their leveraging of the 700Mhz wireless auction into an open source, net neutral environment. Google now is trying to push the phone companies into finally providing faster data services. Then, Google will only have to fund some existing hardware upgrades at existing locations.

In the final analysis, Google’s Gigabit Fiber test beds will get wall-to-wall media coverage for their accomplishment, while the telco and cable guys will be scrambling to explain what they did with the rate payers’ $300 billion dollars over the past twenty-five years.