Innovation

How Google Fiber launched in Louisville in just 5 months

The flagbearer of gigabit internet got some momentum back by using a new deployment technique to light up its first city of 2017—in record time.

The first Google Fiber customer is now online in Louisville, KY. And on Wednesday, the company opened the floodgates for others to get the service installed, too.

This comes five months after the company announced that Louisville would be its next city—and eight months after TechRepublic first broke the news that Louisville would be where Google Fiber would launch its 2.0 infrastructure after its infamous "reset" last fall when it fired its CEO and paused all future deployments.

The broadband upstart regained some of its mojo by using a new deployment technique called "shallow trenching"—sometimes referred to as microtrenching or nanotrenching—to deploy fiber at a pace it's never done before.

SEE: Photos: How Google Fiber is using 'shallow trenching' to outbuild its gigabit rivals

"This is the fastest we've gone from the start of construction to customer signup," said Ashley Kroh, network operations lead at Google Fiber. "In every other market, it's taken a year or longer."

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On Wednesday, Google Fiber unveiled its Louisville Google Fiber vans, with graphics created by local artist Ashley Trommler.

The red carpet

In addition to shallow trenching, the surprisingly swift deployment was made possible by the red carpet laid out by Louisville's city government.

"This is only possible because Louisville is a leader in civic innovation," said Google Fiber's city manager for Louisville, Scott Pluta—who has been involved in fiber deployments in multiple cities.

Five years ago, Louisville mayor Greg Fischer and former chief innovation officer Ted Smith made a big bet that the future economic development of the city depended on getting gigabit broadband deployed across Louisville. So the city aggressively courted Google Fiber and other high speed telecoms.

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

It famously passed its "One Touch Make Ready" ordinance to allow new broadband providers to hang their cables on existing utility poles. Incumbents AT&T and Time Warner sued, but in August a federal judge threw out the lawsuit. That opened one of the doors Google Fiber needed in Louisville, and set a precedent for other US cities.

A new internet deal

However, Google Fiber hasn't needed to touch any utility poles in Louisville yet. In the first three pockets of the city where it's deployed, it's relied on shallow trenching to execute its fiber-to-the-premises plans. In fact, shallow trenching is going so well in Louisville that Google Fiber hasn't yet had to use the fixed wireless technology that it acquired from Webpass—and that it played up during its reset in October 2016.

Nevertheless, Kroh said, "Fixed wireless is critical in the long term, and it's complimentary to the fiber networks we're building."

Google Fiber has started with three neighborhoods in Louisville—Portland, Newburg, and Strathmoor (better known as the Highlands, where all the young professionals hang out). Residents of those neighborhoods can start ordering the service today by going to google.com/fiber/louisville. There are two packages to choose from:

  1. Fiber 100 — 100 Mbps connection (both up and down) for $50/month
  2. Fiber 1000 — 1 Gbps connection (both up and down) for $70/month

There are not additional taxes or add-on fees so the customer's bill is actually $70 or $50, according to Pluta. There are also no annual contracts, installation fees, or data caps. And when the customer signs up, they get one free Google Wifi router (see CNET's review).

"We listen to our customers," said Kroh. "They want options. They don't want data caps, and contracts feel very binding."

SEE: Telecommuting policy (Tech Pro Research)

And that also brings us to the final reason why Google has been able to move so fast in Louisville: it's not encumbered by having to mix in a TV and phone package. Earlier this month, Google Fiber announced that in its next two markets—Louisville and San Antonio—it's forgoing the traditional TV packages it's been offering in its previous fiber cities. It's betting that a large portion of the people who get Google Fiber would also be willing to be cord cutters—or already are. That's also more viable now that there are multiple low-cost streaming TV options in the US—YouTube TV, DirecTV Now, Sling TV, Hulu Live, and Sony PlayStation Vue.

With the Louisville launch today, Google Fiber is offering the ability to add on YouTube TV (with a two-week free trial) and if customers sign up at the same time that they order Google Fiber then they get a free Nvidia Shield TV streaming box (see CNET review).

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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.

The battle with AT&T

To be clear, Google Fiber's Louisville launch is only a beginning, even if it's a fast one. It's lighting up three neighborhoods. There are over 80 more left to do. The map below shows the areas where Google Fiber has filed permits with Louisville city government. It includes the three areas where it started taking customers at launch as well as a fourth area, Germantown, where it has obtained permits and could be its next neighborhood.

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These are the areas of Louisville where Google Fiber has filed for construction permits, based on TechRepublic's research of public records.

But if it can keep up its current pace, then it has a better chance to disrupt AT&T, Spectrum, and Comcast then when it was simply trying to beat them at their own game. A year ago, AT&T was openly mocking Google Fiber (as ZDNet reported). That's not the case today.

SEE: Google Fiber 2.0 targets the city where it will stage its comeback, as AT&T Fiber prepares to go nuclear (TechRepublic cover story)

With shallow-trenching, Google Fiber crews are now laying about 12,000 feet of fiber optic cable per day—using 3-4 crews—according to multiple sources in the construction industry in Louisville. According to those same sources, which work with both Google Fiber and AT&T Fiber as well as other providers, one AT&T crew can lay a maximum of about 2,000 feet of fiber per day. And that's if everything goes perfectly with its traditional digging methods. The average pace for AT&T is more in the 1,000-1,500 feet per day range, per crew. Google Fiber officials admitted that when they were using traditional techniques, their crews were only averaging 500-1,000 feet of fiber per day.

The bottom line is that Google Fiber is out-deploying AT&T Fiber by somewhere between 5x to 10x every day in Louisville.

Still, AT&T Fiber has a big head start in Louisville, since it has had a fiber backbone across the city for a decade or more and has been building its fiber-to-the-premises network for over a year. By the estimate of one of the construction managers that TechRepublic spoke with, it has 40% of its network already complete. However, its new construction is moving far more slowly and it's also signing up customers at a slow pace.

Nevertheless, we found a software engineer in the Louisville area who's had AT&T Fiber for six months and he said the gigabit speeds have been as good as advertised and it has never gone down—a big improvement over the inconsistent Spectrum (formerly Time Warner) cable internet and AT&T DSL options currently offered in Louisville.

Clearly, the competition is prompting AT&T Fiber to provide much better service. And with Google Fiber's new acceleration, the pace of gigabit internet is poised to pick up—not just in Louisville but in other US cities as well, if Google Fiber can replicate its success.

TechRepublic's Conner Forrest and Olivia Krauth contributed to this story.

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Google Fiber workers answer questions from a local resident in Louisville about the gigabit internet service they are deploying.

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About Jason Hiner

Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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