To bastardize a famous passage from John F. Kennedy: It’s not what Google can do for these 34 municipalities, it’s what these 34 communities can do for Google.
When Google announced its first fiber project in Kansas City, the question facing its telecommunications competitors – mostly, the cable folks and AT&T and Verizon – was whether the company was making a serious play to become a service provider or trying to goad the established players into juicing up their services.
The question has hung out there ever since. Google has broken ground in enough cities to make it unfair to say that it isn’t a player, but not enough to make it clear it is not a fiber poseur.
The company this week took a step in the direction of proving its backhoe bona fides: Google announced that it is considering expanding to 34 cities in nine metropolitan areas. They are, according to the New York Times and other sources, San Jose, Calif.; Salt Lake City; San Antonio; Nashville; Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Phoenix and Portland, Ore.
It is important to keep in mind that the deals are far from cemented. Indeed, the announcement is rife with conditional phrasing:
We aim to provide updates by the end of the year about which cities will be getting Google Fiber. Between now and then, we’ll work closely with each city’s leaders on a joint planning process that will not only map out a Google Fiber network in detail, but also assess what unique local challenges we might face. These are such big jobs that advance planning goes a long way toward helping us stick to schedules and minimize disruption for residents.
The subtext is that Google is being cute. The company is trying to rearrange the relationship that traditionally has existed between cable companies and municipalities. The Washington Post’s Brian Fung puts it well:
All these conditions reveal some interesting power dynamics between the search giant and the mayors that are competing for Google's affections. Usually, companies have to go through complicated or costly processes to dig up the streets and install new infrastructure. In Kansas City, where Google Fiber is being built, officials waived fees and made other concessions to woo the company. But Google is attractive enough to many mayors that it's been able to turn that model on its head. Google is asking the cities to complete a checklist of requirements before the company will consider bringing its fiber service to those cities.
It is possible to be a bit cynical about what Google is saying. eWeek’s Todd Weiss paraphrased Google Fiber General Manager Kevin Lo:
Not all of the 34 communities that will now be in discussions with Google for Fiber service will ultimately get it in this round, said Lo, but by having such discussions, those communities will likely be in a better place to receive service from a fiber partner in the future because they will know what is needed to make such a venture happen. Much of the coming discussions will revolve around the legal, construction, permitting, infrastructure and other local issues that have to be addressed when building a complex fiber system, he said.
This either could be completely sincere or a tacit threat: Give us what we want or you can deal with some second-rate provider who happens along later. After all, how many other players will come along that have the desire and backing to do what Google Fiber promises?
Google already has run into problems with Overland Park, Kansas, because the local government balked at the language of the agreement. It will be interesting to see if that dynamic is repeated elsewhere.
This all is happening in the shadow of Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable. If that deal closes, a massive nationwide entity will be formed. That, along with Google’s announcement that it will build networks in cities that please it, suggests that the fulcrum of power is shifting away from municipalities and toward the carriers.