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VOL. 42 | NO. 31 | Friday, August 3, 2018

Where the heck is my Google Fiber?

Mixing NES, Comcast, AT&T, FCC makes for slow walk to high-speed internet

By Kathy Carlson

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Remember Google Fiber and its 2015 promise to deliver “ultra-fast fiber optic service” to Nashville? Our “It City” status had been confirmed when we were selected as one of only 10 cities in the U.S. cool enough for the Silicon Valley giant.

Two years to completion, we were assured. Two years until we would all enjoy faster, cheaper service. Two years, and all those bad customer service experiences with Comcast and AT&T – we’ve all heard them – would be a distant memory.

Are we there yet? Not really.

After two and a-half years here, Google Fiber serves neighborhoods in and around downtown – East Nashville, Sylvan Park, areas around Vanderbilt University and West End Avenue. It recently signed its 50th apartment complex for service. Multi-family buildings are a better return on investment with one line going to reach many potential clients.

The Google Fiber website lists more than 250 apartment-type locations that it plans to serve in the future, although it doesn’t say when. Google also won’t say how many customers it has here, but it’s safe to say that most people still get their home internet service – including broadband – through AT&T or Comcast.

So, what’s the problem? It’s partly the nature of competition, partly due to a patchwork of regulations and partly because some don’t want to switch ISPs.

“When we started Google Fiber eight years ago, we knew that building a new fiber network was going to be hard, slow and expensive,” John Burchett, Google Fiber’s director of public policy, said last month on Google Fiber’s official blog,

“But what we didn’t fully appreciate were the obstacles we would face around a key part of the process: gaining timely access to space on utility and telephone poles to place new communications equipment.”

That’s what happened in Nashville, where Google needed to use most of the city’s 100,000 utility poles to deploy its fiber optic cables and provide service. Its biggest broadband competitors, Comcast and AT&T, already had cable and wire on the poles and millions invested in their own equipment.

Most of the poles, 80 percent, are owned by Nashville Electric Service, which says those poles are worth about $42 million. AT&T owns the other 20 percent. Nashville’s limestone foundation means that most telecom and electric lines are placed above ground, making access to the poles critical for those who want to offer broadband.

Under the system that Comcast, AT&T and NES had worked out over the years, any company that wanted to place telecom equipment on poles had to wait until those who were already there moved their equipment to make room for the newcomer. Getting a pole ready for another user is called the “make-ready process.”

Google Fiber blogged in 2016 that about 44,000 poles in Nashville had to be made ready for its service, and that things were moving too slowly. It supported a Metro ordinance to expedite the process.

Microtrenching in city streets is one way Google is getting around fighting for space on the city’s utility poles. Fiber optic cables are placed in the narrow trenches, which are then filled in.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Google Fiber

Metro Council did pass such a measure in September 2016.

The One Touch Make Ready ordinance allowed a new attacher, such as Google Fiber, to do all the prep work on the pole through contractors approved by NES without waiting for all the other companies with lines on the poles to do their prep work.

It allowed attachers to give NES 15 days notice for routine prep work, and 30 days for complex situations with potential to disrupt service. The ordinance differed from NES’s agreements with companies that wanted to use its poles, and NES asked for clarification in chancery court.

AT&T and Comcast sued in federal court to prevent the new ordinance from taking effect, stating it was contrary to their contracts with NES and wasn’t allowed under Metro Charter, which gives NES the sole right to manage the poles.

In early 2018, a little more than a year after the lawsuit was filed, the judge ruled in favor of Comcast and AT&T and threw out Metro’s OTMR ordinance.

Ever adaptable, Google Fiber began using microtrenching to reach users. The process involves cutting shallow trenches in roadsways, laying fiber optic cable and refilling and sealing the cut.

The tech news website Fierce Telecom reported in December 2016 that before microtrenching, Google Fiber said it had to dig three feet underground to lay cable, sometimes running into other utilities. (That has also happened in Nashville with microtrenching, as contractors have accidentally cut into water lines during the trenching process.)

So when the Federal Communications Commission recently proposed a new rule to establish a nationwide version of One Touch Make Ready, Google Fiber hailed the move.

“We’re happy to see the FCC recommending new rules that propose to remarkably advance the deployment of high-speed broadband across the United States,” it said in an email statement.

“While we’re still reviewing the language, we’ve long said that a strong One Touch Make Ready process is a common sense policy that will dramatically improve the ability of new broadband providers to enter the market and offer competitive service by reducing delays and lowering costs. It will also make deployments safer and less disruptive for communities.”

Unfortunately, the new rule, which was adopted at this week’s FCC meeting, won’t apply to the 80 percent of the utility poles here owned by NES because it and other municipal utilities are exempt from FCC regulation on pole attachments. At most it would apply to the other 20 percent of the poles that belong to AT&T.

The government-owned utilities have been exempted since 1978 when a law was passed to give cable television operators regulated access to privately owned utility poles, access it didn’t have until then. The law has always contained an exemption for utilities owned by state and local governments because Congress saw them as especially close to their customers – local citizens – and able to set fair rates and conditions of service, says Sean Stokes, a Washington attorney who represents government-owned power companies and was not involved in the Nashville OTMR lawsuit.

It looks like the FCC will adopt the proposed OTMR rule this month, Stokes says it remains to be seen whether exempt utilities will move toward in the direction of the FCC, toward OTMR.

One Touch is complicated because there are so many entities that either have used utility poles or want to.

“Most utilities are willing to try to do things to expedite the time frame for attaching equipment, but they don’t want to be pulled in to the middle of it,” he explains. “That’s exactly what happened in Nashville” with the lawsuit that tossed the Metro OTMR ordinance.

Nashville’s Electric Power Board, which operates as NES, holds monthly public meetings, issues annual reports and says its regulator is TVA, the governmentally created power company from which it buys all of its electricity.

“TVA has retail regulatory oversight for the 154 local power companies that distribute TVA power, including NES,” TVA spokesman W. Scott Gureck states.

Attachments must be performed in connection with NES’ engineering standards, NES states, based in large part on the National Electric Safety Code, and subject to TVA requirements.

Even though a new FCC OTMR rule wouldn’t regulate poles belonging to municipal utilities, like those of NES, it could become a benchmark that is voluntarily adopted throughout the industry.

Asked whether NES would consider moving toward an OTMR rule if the FCC approves one, a spokesperson said, “NES has not considered adopting OTMR following the ruling by the federal court.” It didn’t mention the FCC proposed rule.

Meanwhile, on a warm Sunday morning in Hillsboro Village, people talked about their internet options.

People lined up in front of Biscuit Love for breakfast, mostly out-of-towners who said they hadn’t heard of Google Fiber. A few are from here, including a woman who says she just moved here and her landlord told her Comcast internet service was available, but not Google Fiber.

One woman says she lives in Green Hills and Google Fiber service isn’t available there. She might be interested in switching if Google Fiber was suitable for a small residential user and didn’t cost more than existing service.

Chris Trump (no relation to the president) says he’d consider Google Fiber if it were available in his Wedgwood-Houston neighborhood. He obtains 65 mbps download-speed internet service from Comcast and says similar-speed service from AT&T isn’t yet available in his neighborhood.

Others who live here say they know little about Google Fiber.

Around the block from the restaurants, Ron Weems lives at Leah Rose Residence for Seniors. The high-rise, independent-living apartment building was wired for Google Fiber about a year ago, he says, but he doesn’t use it and he doesn’t know anyone who does. His internet service is with Comcast.

“It’s too much hassle” to change internet providers, adds another resident, who uses AT&T. A third resident, a Comcast customer, says she’s happy with her current service and doesn’t want Google Fiber.

Laura Hutfless, a partner with FlyteVu, a marketing agency she launched in 2015 after 15 years in the music industry, says she uses Google Fiber’s 100 mbps residential service. Both business and residential service is fast and convenient, she says, and she’s been very happy.

“It was really easy to set up,” she says. “What really stands out is the customer service. The people are friendly.”

It was “amazing,” she adds, that the Google Fiber technicians could set up her system completely in a short time and with no delay in getting an appointment.

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