On the top of the short list of telecom stories during the past decade was the announcement by Google in early 2010 that it would begin building all-fiber high speed networks across the United States. The first service area was Kansas City two years later.
There was debate over how serious Google was. It turns out that Google Fiber was not just a feint to goad the Comcasts and Verizons of the world into creating faster networks for the delivery of content (including Google’s). That no doubt was part of the plan. But it was soon clear that the company was serious about being a broadband provider, not just a catalyst.
Now, it seems, Google Fiber – which is a division of Alphabet -- has come to a crossroads. On Tuesday, Craig Barratt, Alphabet’s Senior Vice President and CEO of Access, blogged on the company site that the Google Fiber will “pause our operations and offices while we refine our approaches.”
The blog says that the change will involve locales to which Google Fiber is talking about future projects. Those launched or under construction will continue, according to Barratt, who is stepping down as CEO. He will remain as an advisor.
Ars Technica provides good detail of what the plan is, at least for now. The most important point absent in Barratt’s blog post is that nine percent of the staff is being laid off or reassigned.
There are a couple of ways to look at this. The Washington Post’s Brian Fung writes that there just might not be enough demand:
Just like Google Glass — the company's ill-fated attempt to build an augmented-reality visor — Google Fiber may be just a little ahead of its time. The thing about Fiber and businesses like it is that most consumers simply can't find a use for that much bandwidth yet. Google Fiber provides gigabit connectivity, which is orders of magnitude faster than what many Americans get in their homes today.
It is hard to imagine that Google/Alphabet didn’t consider these issues before anteing up billions of dollars to start the project. On the other hand, the history of business is filled with short sightedness. And, of course, conditions change.
Fung points to two pretty significant areas in which change most likely did alter the equation: The broadband business and the technology that drives it are not what they were a decade ago.
The technology piece is particularly important. In fact, there are two technology developments that may have fed into the time out. One – which Google appears ready to take advantage of – is wireless. This may be 5G or a Google approach reported upon by Business Insider and Wired in August.
Alphabet may also be thinking about digital subscriber line (DSL) technology. This family of protocols, which aims to radically expand the capacity of copper, is not new. However, research has been surprisingly fruitful. The assumption that telcos’ huge inventories of last mile fiber are dinosaurs waiting to die may have seemed reasonable when Google Fiber launched. They no longer are. More telcos are players and the competition is tougher than planners anticipated a decade ago when Google Fiber was on the drawing board.
The telecommunications industry has changed in many ways during the past ten years. Google’s master plan may no longer be viable. It is also possible it will be fine – as long as some fundamental adjustments are made.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.