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Google Fiber Planned for Third City, Signal of New Power for Cities Bargaining for Broadband

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, April 17 2013

Google has announced that Provo, Utah will become the third city in the U.S. to get Google Fiber, the search company's entry into broadband Internet and TV service.

The company will purchase a fiber-optic network already built by the city, pending approval by Provo's city council in an upcoming vote. The network, iProvo, was privatized, bought back and leased out in recent years, but it's clear Provo officials and network executives had yet to make the network commercially viable. If the purchase by Google is approved, the company promises to upgrade Provo's network to gigabit speeds, bring its "Free Internet" service online to provide 5Mbps service for at least seven years for customers who pay a $30 activation fee, and offer Fiber TV service.

This is the second Google Fiber announcement in as many weeks. Under the rising scent of cherry blossoms in the April's spring air, AT&T and Time Warner spread the smell of alarm last week after Austin, Texas Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Google executives announced Fiber would launch next year in the music and technology capital, competing with both companies directly. Provo is also served by both AT&T and Time Warner.

Google expects to offer Internet access in Austin starting sometime in mid-2014, and does not give an estimated launch date for gigabit speeds in Provo.

"We’re absolutely taking this competition seriously, and we’re not just going to roll over and go out of business here," Time Warner Cable officials wrote in a blog post last week, responding to the Austin announcement.

The day Google and the City of Austin announced their plan, AT&T also released a statement promising to roll out a network at the same speeds — if it receives "the same terms and conditions as Google on issues such as geographic scope of offerings, rights of way, permitting, state licenses and any investment incentives."

Whatever those are. A spokeswoman for the City of Austin referred my request for a copy of the document governing the agreement with Google to her colleagues, who have logged it as a request under state public records laws.

I'm not surprised the city is being so careful. The lawyerly turns of phrase in AT&T's bizarre same-day press release — which, city officials tell me, came from nowhere, as AT&T had not been in related talks with Austin's City Hall beforehand — are likely not an accident. Kansas City offered Google a slew of concessions for its Fiber rollout there, ranging from access to its utility conduits to expedited permitting. Crying foul, Time Warner tried to take the city back to the bargaining table in its own agreements over rights-of-way, arguing that it should get a similar deal.

That argument presses false equivalence. In Illinois, Chicago seems ready to offer a far more lavish deal to whomever wins an anticipated contract to build a citywide fiber-to-the-home network for residents of the Windy City. A request for information released late last year proposed a network that would be fully open, meaning competitors can pay to run their traffic over it, and also neutral, meaning the operator does not shape traffic so its business partners get better service than others do. That network would also offer free or low-cost service to low-income areas, among other things. In exchange, the city is dangling $30 million in its own business for Internet service, use of its own excess fiber-optic capacity, access to a variety of rights-of-way ranging from alleys to underground tunnels, and more.

(Will it be Google?)

And in Seattle, a project called "Gigabit Squared" promised to raise $25 million to use the city's excess fiber-optic capacity, as well as capacity from the University of Washington, as the core of a network serving at least 100,000 residents. That project, now in development, joins similar initiatives that will cover parts of Chicago, Gainesville, Fla., and six communities in North Carolina.

In the documents outlining the deal between Seattle and Gigabit Squared, the city promises that their agreement is non-exclusive. Seattle, officials write, will extend similar assistance to any network that wants to meet the same bar: Gigabit-speed, affordable fiber-to-the-home, with low-cost access for low-income residents acceptable in lieu of payments for access to the city's infrastructure.

It's true, not every city has a fiber-optic network like Provo's in Utah, just lying around, suffering without an owner who can carry the capital costs of infrastructure that isn't turning a profit or make the investments to turn it around. And Google isn't likely to be a ubiquitous service provider anytime soon. But projects like Google Fiber, and others like Gigabit Squared, give cities an opportunity to raise the bar ‐ and, at long last, defy the Time Warners and AT&Ts of the world to meet it.