Networking

Google Fiber is using a secret weapon to outpace AT&T and other gigabit competitors

A construction technique known as 'shallow trenching' allows the tech firm to lay a huge amount of fiber in a single day, speeding its rollout in key cities.

Google Fiber has had a tumultuous 12 months, but the Alphabet division recently roared back to life with a new trick that could make it a serious threat to legacy ISPs.

That trick, as it turns out, was that Google Fiber was going to keep pursuing its standard fiber internet offering, but it was going to deploy fiber optic cables faster than it ever had before, racing to beat out competitors like AT&T in key markets. Google Fiber did this with a technique known as shallow trenching, and it got the service to Louisville, KY in five short months after it first announced that it would be coming to the city—faster than it had ever deployed before.

SEE: Job description: Wireless network engineer (Tech Pro Research)

Instead of mounting cables on utility poles or digging deep into the ground, shallow trenching allows a company to cut a small groove in the street or sidewalk, lay the fiber in that groove, and backfill it with a special epoxy. The process is much faster than traditional methods, and far less disruptive to the areas where it is being performed.

Shallow trenching is often split up as two different methods—microtrenching and nanotrenching. Microtrenching relies on a trench that is 6-12 inches deep and usually 1.25 inches across, according to the Fiber Optic Association. Nanotrenching, on the other hand, utilizes a much smaller trench that is typically only two inches deep and less than an inch wide.

Google Fiber started using microtrenching in Austin, but it is the backbone of its work in Louisville. In the Derby City, Google Fiber is using both nanotrenching and microtrenching across the three launch neighborhoods.

In Louisville's Strathmoor neighborhood, two crews are each laying some 4,000 feet of fiber per day using nanotrenching. In its Newburg neighborhood, the crews are each laying about 2,000 feet per day using microtrenching. That's a total of 12,000 feet of fiber being laid everyday in just two Louisville neighborhoods. This means that Google Fiber could be out-deploying AT&T in Louisville by 5-10x, since AT&T is using traditional digging deployment methods.

AT&T does have a big head start though, as 40% of its network is already complete, according to another construction manager that TechRepublic spoke with. But Google Fiber is moving forward at unheard-of speeds. In fact, multiple construction professionals that TechRepublic spoke with said they were often working 12, 15 or 18 hour days laying cables for Google Fiber.

Microtrenching is nothing new in the telecom world, though. Back in 2013, Verizon used the technique in New York City as it was building out its own fiber network. Still, there's no denying how strong of a focus that Google Fiber has placed on the method.

The effectiveness of the shallow trenching techniques used by Google Fiber were no doubt accelerated by the company's tight connection with the city of Louisville. If it can maintain such relationships with future cities, and continue the pace of deployment it has set in Louisville, Google Fiber could outpace its rivals and establish a strong customer base in critical cities.

SEE: Digital Transformation: A CXO's Guide (a ZDNet and TechRepublic special report)

As the fiber wars inevitably heat up, it's important to remember that the competition between Google Fiber and other ISPs won't be symmetrical, Gartner principal analyst William Hahn said.

"Google doesn't actually need to 'compete with AT&T et al' on their terms, as a legacy communications service provider—that is a cost-intensive business with diminishing revenues and margins," Hahn said. This is because Google and its parent company Alphabet make money from a variety of other sources, Hahn said, primarily online advertising.

Because of this, efforts like Google Fiber and others don't have to be treated as a profit center, Hahn said, instead being treated as "a cost of better learning their central business of serving up ads."

After Google Fiber first moved into Kansas City, it incited a real response from the likes of AT&T and Time Warner, Hahn said. This has led to the creation of more local fiber deployments, a higher percentage of gigabit-connected premises, and potentially even more services, he noted.

"Google can now sit back and look at all this, drawing insights from the data and creating ever-more dynamic and targeted advertising," Hahn said. "They don't need to be a retail service provider to do this. I imagine that this could be their end-game, catalyzing the creation of a fibersphere where gigabit ecosystems will create new services that Google can observe and learn from."

The responses that Google Fiber received weren't always just increased competition. When Google Fiber first announced a plan to use its Webpass acquisition to provide a fixed wireless-focused infrastructure, AT&T openly mocking Google Fiber's wireless model.

Now, it seems that Google Fiber has surprised Ma Bell by doubling down on fiber in Louisville and pushing at a breakneck speed to finish building its network. If Google Fiber is able to realize its vision in Louisville and continue ramping up deployments in such a short time frame, it could have a real chance at making a move from ISP upstart to juggernaut, and disrupting its competition along the way.

Update: Traye Kenerly, associate vice president of product marketing management for AT&T Fiber, said that AT&T has been using microtrenching as part of its fiber deployments since 2010. However, an AT&T spokesperson said that the firm is not using the method in Louisville.

Also see

01-google-fiber-louisville.jpg

Louisville construction workers lay fiber optic cables in one of the street trenches that Google Fiber is using to speed up the deployment of gigabit internet.

Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox