As Google Fiber is sorting out its next moves, ground zero in the gigabit wars has emerged in Louisville, Kentucky, where AT&T Fiber has talked big but signed up very few gigabit customers.
In early February, the "new cities" section of the Google Fiber website quietly moved Louisville, Kentucky from its list of "Potential" cities to "Upcoming" cities, joining San Antonio, Texas and Huntsville, Alabama (while eight other potential cities have been "paused" as Google Fiber finds its feet).
While these three metros look like the beachheads where the company will relaunch its gigabit broadband service, Louisville in particular looks like the place where Google Fiber will prototype its next generation architecture, using a mix of fiber optics for the internet backbone and fixed wireless for the last mile to connect customers. This has the potential to supercharge deployments by bypassing the hardest, slowest, and most expensive part of the process—digging ditches and climbing poles to connect cables to every single residence.
Meanwhile, as Google Fiber's official launch in Louisville is imminent, its biggest gigabit internet rival in the US—AT&T Fiber—is unleashing an army of employees and contractors to wire up virtually every single home in the city where Google Fiber is preparing to launch the prototype for the 2.0 version of its ultra high speed service. Combined with their ongoing lawsuit over utility pole access in Louisville, it's turning the southern city into the epicenter of the fiber broadband wars of 2017—with important implications for the future of both companies and gigabit internet across the United States.
Google Fiber in Louisville
When the Google Fiber team moved Louisville to the "Upcoming" cities on one section of its website, it may have been the case of someone on the Google Fiber team jumping the gun on information that wasn't supposed to be public yet, because Louisville was still listed as a "Potential" city on the Google Fiber map and on Google Fiber's Louisville page.
We reached out to Google Fiber for comment, but the company said that nothing had changed and provided no additional information on upcoming announcements. We reached out to the City of Louisville, but it would not confirm or deny that Louisville was about to be announced as a Fiber city.
"We are in regular communications with the Google Fiber team, which continues to remain committed to bringing their service to Louisville," said Grace Simrall, chief of civic innovation for Louisville Metro Government. "We would be thrilled to have Google Fiber complete their exploratory work and announce that Louisville is a Google Fiber city."
Google Fiber has had a unique connection to the city ever since Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer went to bat for Google Fiber with a "One Touch Make Ready" ordinance that gave Google Fiber (and other broadband challengers) the right to make use of public utility poles owned by providers such as AT&T. Louisville and Google argued that the move was a common sense measure to bring more broadband competition and quickly spread ultra high speed internet throughout the city.
AT&T took the city to court over it, and Louisville immediately morphed into an important battleground for the future of Google Fiber and broadband. In the initial Google Fiber cities, it could simply make a deal with the city and get to work. However, Louisville was more like many other US cities with a tangled web of ownership, laws, and ordinances around utilities. If Google Fiber could make it in Louisville, then it could set a precedent that could spread to other cities.
Fischer again stepped up and said, "We will vigorously defend the lawsuit filed today by AT&T. Gigabit fiber is too important to our city's future."
Google Fiber joined the lawsuit on Louisville's side, and published a blog post in which it said, "Mayor Fischer, we couldn't agree with you more, and stand with you."
But, "One Touch Make Ready" quickly spread to Nashville, which passed a similar ordinance and also got sued by AT&T. Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum) joined the AT&T lawsuit in Louisville and Comcast joined the AT&T lawsuit in Nashville. Both court cases are still pending.
The other thing that makes Google Fiber in Louisville unique is the way it's being deployed.
In the summer of 2016, Google Fiber was in Louisville setting up locations for "fiber huts"—a key part of the infrastructure for its fiber-to-the-premises deployments—when the company bought Webpass, a fixed wireless provider that has provided high-quality, gigabit-speed internet in several major metros across the US. When the Webpass deal closed, Google Fiber stated, "We're particularly excited about Webpass' application of point-to-point wireless deployment methodology... Our strategy going forward will be a hybrid approach with wireless playing an integral part."
Since the Webpass announcement, there's been no evidence that Google Fiber continued its progress on fiber huts in Louisville—where the TechRepublic editorial team has had its headquarters since 1999 and has reporters on the ground. Instead, the company began rethinking its architecture around the idea of deploying much cheaper and faster using ultra high speed wireless for the so-called "last-mile" connections to homes.
And then, in October, Google Fiber stumbled. It parted ways with CEO Craig Barrett, reportedly laid off 9% of its staff, and paused deployments in "potential" Fiber cities while it made changes to its strategy that included a "focus on new technology and deployment methods." However, the company also released a statement that it was still continuing its work in one of the "potential" cities: Louisville.
"We are excited to bring Google Fiber to Louisville and are still figuring out the path," said a Google spokesperson. "We've made great progress working with the city and are excited to find innovative new ways to deploy superfast internet, such as One Touch Make Ready and wireless technology. We'll make a full announcement with the city at the right time."
With the recent change on the Google Fiber website, that announcement now appears imminent.
As its official statement makes clear, Google Fiber's Louisville network is going to include its wireless Webpass technology for last-mile connections to homes. While other cities where Google Fiber had already done infrastructure work—San Antonio, Huntsville, and Raleigh, North Carolina—have continued with the same technology as the original Google Fiber cities, the timing of the Louisville build (along with the One Touch Make Ready battle) has made it the perfect candidate for Google Fiber to launch the 2.0 version of its gigabit ambitions.
AT&T Fiber in Louisville
While the city of Louisville has said that several providers have expressed interest in providing fiber since the One Touch Make Ready ordinance passed, AT&T poses the stiffest competition to Google Fiber in the Louisville market. When Google first added the Kentucky city to its list of potential Fiber deployments in September 2015, AT&T responded three months later, claiming that it would soon be connecting the city to its fiber network. AT&T was prepared to defend its turf.
In March 2016, AT&T touted to the press that it was about to connect its first two subdivisions to gigabit fiber in Louisville. A month later, Google Fiber started scoping out possibilities for "fiber huts." In July, AT&T started bragging that it was already installing gigabit fiber throughout Louisville—even as Google Fiber was getting all the hype after the One Touch Make Ready ordinance, but had yet to start its deployment.
Then, in August, AT&T openly mocked Google Fiber's decision to start using wireless to speed up its deployments. In a published statement, AT&T said:
"Google Fiber still complains it's too hard... Meanwhile, without excuses or finger-pointing, and without presenting ultimatums to cities in exchange for service, AT&T continues to deploy fiber and to connect our customers to broadband services in communities across the country. Welcome to the broadband network business, Google Fiber. We'll be watching your next move from our rear view mirror."
Around the same time, we spoke with one of AT&T's U-verse installers, who said the company was in the process of hiring a ton of contractors to lay fiber. He noted that AT&T didn't normally hire a lot of third-party contractors to lay cable because of its strict guidelines to ensure network quality. But, in this case, AT&T wanted to speed up the build-out.
By the late summer and early fall, AT&T contractors in unmarked white vans could be seen digging trenches and laying fiber cables throughout several northeastern Louisville neighborhoods.
On October 18, AT&T Fiber officially launched in Louisville, with AT&T claiming that the service was "available widely." However, AT&T refused to reveal where in the city its service was available and how many customers would have access to it, for "competitive reasons."
Despite asking around the tech community in Louisville, at the time we were unable to find a single customer who had AT&T Fiber installed, or even anyone who had it available in their neighborhood based on AT&T's web-based form. (It would be three months before we were able to track one down.)
It was easy to conclude that this is why sites like TechDirt have accused AT&T of "delivering gigabit speeds to high-end housing developments, then pretending the upgrades are much, much larger than they actually are... We're not living in the age of fiber to the home—so much as we're living in the age of fiber to the press release."
AT&T Fiber in Louisville appeared to halt altogether sometime in late October. Once the lawsuit went into effect and Google Fiber announced that it was scaling back on October 25, 2016, the contractors doing the digging for AT&T Fiber seemingly disappeared.
For the next couple months, it seemed as if everything was in limbo. AT&T vans became a far less common occurrence in the residential areas where they had been digging, and no real press releases or marketing came out about AT&T Fiber in Louisville. In one particular subdivision that had seen contractors working nearly everyday, they suddenly stopped showing up after finishing their digging in only about half of the neighborhood.
As it got late into December, things suddenly started moving again.
A TechRepublic reader in Louisville reported that AT&T Fiber was up on the poles installing cables in his neighborhood of Germantown—an older area of the city near downtown. The workers were in a clearly marked AT&T truck and the reader confirmed with the technicians that they were hanging fiber. However, AT&T's website still doesn't show his neighborhood as having AT&T Fiber available.
AT&T's work across the city has exploded since. TechRepublic has heard from several contractors associated with AT&T that the company is bringing in more and more contractors and is working non-stop to put tons of new fiber in the area. It has told the contractors that they have to keep up or else AT&T will give the business to others who can. And, that it expects to work continuously over the next couple years bringing fiber to every corner of the city.
It doesn't appear to be a coincidence that AT&T Fiber's sudden renewed urgency in Louisville has coincided with the expectation that Google Fiber could use Louisville as the prototype for its next generation fiber cities.
Interestingly enough, even after months of searching, we have only found one AT&T Fiber customer in the Louisville city limits (which includes all of Jefferson County) and two additional AT&T Fiber customers in neighboring suburbs (Oldham County).
Back in April 2016, the city of Louisville launched SpeedUpLouisville.com for residents to share their internet speeds. It was a crowdsourced attempt at creating a map of broadband progress throughout the area. The city was hoping to celebrate when the first gigabit customers started showing up. Ten months and over 4,000 speed tests later, we have confirmed with the people who run the site that no one with gigabit speeds has ever run a speedtest on the site.
Still, AT&T's director of global media relations, Jeff Kobs, told TechRepublic: "Our [AT&T Fiber service] is available to tens of thousands of homes, apartments and small business locations" in Louisville.
"We have the largest fiber network across the 21 states where we offer home internet service," Kobs said. "Today, we're marketing access to nearly 4 million locations across 46 metros nationwide. By mid-2019 we plan to reach at least 12.5 million locations across 67 metro areas."
One of the AT&T Fiber customers we spoke with just received his service in the Oldham County suburbs on January 23, 2017. The customer claimed that an AT&T representative was going door-to-door to sell the service in his subdivision on January 16. But, it should be noted that the entire subdivision was previously set up for fiber, with fiber-to-the-premises already installed. The customer confirmed his service with a screenshot of his speedtest, but said he doesn't know anyone else in his neighborhood who has AT&T Fiber yet.
The one person we talked to who is an AT&T Fiber customer in the Louisville city limits was Aaron Miller, who lives on the far eastern edge of Jefferson County, not far from the border with Oldham County. Miller lives in a newer subdivision and believes that the neighborhood itself may have been wired for fiber at the time that it was built. "They weren't digging up the streets," he said. "There weren't a lot of trucks in the neighborhood."
Still, Miller said he was happy with the service now that he's got it. "I know that, probably, the reason we have AT&T Fiber is because they knew Google Fiber was coming."
That competition is good news for Louisville area residents, who, like most Americans have had to put up with mediocre internet service from the duopoly of cable and DSL providers for the past decade and a half. And, while having one fiber gigabit provider is good, having two is much better.
The Fiber to the Home (FTTH) Council has released a study that claims bringing a second gigabit provider to a market "reduces prices by approximately $57-62 per month, or between 34% to 37%." The FTTH Council also noted that each additional gigabit competitor increases the likelihood that other providers will begin to offer higher speed broadband as well.
During 2016, Louisville's incumbent ISP, Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum), gave its customers a free 6x speed boost as a pre-emptive strike against AT&T Fiber and Google Fiber. For example, customers that were getting the top tier speed of 50Mpbs, were updated to 300Mbps and also received a new modem/router for free.
All of AT&T's moves over the past couple months in Louisville appear to indicate that the telecom giant is looking to go to war over the next generation of internet broadband. And, it views Google Fiber as its most dangerous opponent.
Meanwhile, Google Fiber appears to be done licking its wounds and wants to out-innovate AT&T by using a mix of high-end fiber and point-to-point wireless to deploy its gigabit broadband faster, and to more people, than AT&T Fiber. That journey looks like it's going to begin in Louisville.
With the lawsuit ongoing, it's clear that this battle is getting personal. Google Fiber is setting the stage for its comeback tour, to display its latest innovations. AT&T, on the other hand, is hoping to stamp out any energy the upstart could drum up, working hard to dig and deploy gigabit before Google Fiber arrives in Derby City.
In the fight for the next generation internet, Louisville is set to be the Gettysburg of the fiber war—in the courtroom and neighborhood-to-neighborhood.
Image credit for cover photo at the top: Google Fiber