How Google Fiber turned 2017 into its comeback year

After ending 2016 with its future in jeopardy, Google Fiber began shallow trenching and launched in three new cities during 2017. Still, questions remain.

Google Fiber showed new life in 2017, after a near death experience in late 2016. The fiber internet pioneer launched in three new cities—Huntsville, AL, Louisville, KY, and San Antonio, TX—this year. It also began to heavily rely on shallow trenching, a new method of laying cables, to expedite the construction process.

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

"We're very pleased with the response from residents in these markets—along with our other existing Google Fiber cities, where we worked hard throughout the year to bring Fiber service to even more people in many more neighborhoods," a Google Fiber spokesperson told TechRepublic.

The comeback happened after a construction halt and the CEO stepping down in October 2016, which left some wondering if Fiber was on its last breath.

SEE: Internet and Email usage policy (Tech Pro Research)

But 2017 wasn't entirely a year of redemption. In February, hundreds of Fiber employees were moved to new jobs at Google. And Gregory McCray left the role of CEO in July after only holding the position for five months.

And internet experts still have their doubts. Chris Antlitz, a senior analyst at Technology Business Research, labelled Fiber's year as "not very good." Jim Hayes, president of the Fiber Optic Association, called Google Fiber a "very distant player" in the fiber market.

However, Antlitz added that, for Alphabet—the parent company of both Google and Google Fiber—that means they're just not growing as fast as they wanted to. Google Fiber has still had an impact this year, he said.

Fiber set a new bar for broadband by showing incumbent internet service providers (ISPs) that it is economically feasible to bring 1 gigabit internet to consumers, Antlitz said. Since Google Fiber led a connectivity renaissance in 2011 when it launched in its first city, Kansas City, KS, top telecom providers have been in an arms race to upgrade their broadband pipes to accommodate 1 gigabit, Antlitz said.

Google Fiber's presence in the market has caused competition that has forced other fiber providers like Verizon and AT&T Fiber to offer cheaper, faster service. Adding a second provider to a market can reduce prices by around one-third, according to a study by the Fiber to the Home Council.

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

AT&T has been particularly competitive, analysts say. They've been expanding in current and prospective Google Fiber cities, including adding new neighborhoods in San Antonio months before Google Fiber arrived.

In Louisville, AT&T sued the Louisville Metro Government over its "One Touch Make Ready" ordinance, which allows Google to use existing poles to install its technology without permission from the telecom company that owned the poles. The lawsuit was dismissed in August, and AT&T said it wouldn't appeal the dismissal in October.

A TechRepublic investigation found that AT&T has talked a big game about its buildout in Louisville, but has dragged its feet in rolling out gigabit internet to customers and has signed up very few households. It's this kind of activity that has gotten AT&T's gigabit strategy labeled "fiber-to-the-press-release."

It's unclear what Google Fiber's 2018 will look like. The company's map of Fiber cities doesn't yet list an upcoming city where Fiber will be heading next. Six potential cities—Portland, OR, San Jose, CA, Los Angeles, CA, Dallas, TX, Oklahoma City, OK, Tampa, FL, Jacksonville, FL, Phoenix, AZ—are listed as places the company is exploring.

SEE: Louisville and the Future of the Smart City (a ZDNet/TechRepublic special report)

William Hahn, an analyst at Gartner, said going to even one-third of those cities next year would be impressive for Google Fiber. However, he said he doesn't foresee a shift in the market in the next two years. The next big gamechanger? The rollout of 5G, which will give providers more wireless to potentially play with in cities and hard-to-reach rural areas. In five US cities in 2018, Verizon plans to roll out 5G fixed wireless, which will compete directly with fiber in speed and low latency.

Antlitz said it's probable that Fiber will collaborate with incumbent ISPs to target unserved and underserved communities, including those in emerging markets and harder-to-reach rural spots.

"I think they don't want to be an ISP," Antlitz said. "They're trying to prove a point."

The point? That faster, 1 gigabit internet can be affordable—and that the existing ISPs just needed a push.

"They got what they wanted," Antlitz added.

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Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

About Olivia Krauth

Olivia Krauth is an Education Reporter at Insider Louisville.

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