Backhaul Wireless

Google slows fiber roll-out, may be turning to fixed wireless

A couple of months after Google acquired fixed wireless provider Webpass, the rationale for the deal is becoming clearer. The search giant has suspended build-out of some of its planned Google Fiber deployments, quite possibly because it is exploring lower cost wireless methods to bring broadband to US homes and disrupt the incumbent telcos and cablecos.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, Google has delayed fiber roll-outs to three Silicon Valley cities – San Jose, Mountain View (Google’s HQ) and Palo Alto. The fiber installers were reportedly told that “Google was going to re-evaluate this whole project because they were thinking of going aerial”.

A Google Fiber spokesperson told the newspaper that talks with these cities, and others in the area like Sunnyvale, would continue, but that deploying high speed internet needs to be done “in alignment with our product roadmap”, and take “local challenges” into account. These include gaining city approval to deploy fiber, plus challenges from incumbent telcos (AT&T has opposed Google’s plan to install fiber along utility poles in Louisville, Kentucky, for instance).

Google Fiber is live in Atlanta; Kansas City; Provo, Utah; Nashville, Tennesee; and Austin, Texas; and the company is working in San Francisco.

A wireless alternative could ease some of the headaches and carry lower upfront cost and TCO. Despite its powerful brand and its non-telco business model – providing low cost broadband in order to stimulate consumption of its content, services and ads – Google will still be challenged to make a strong business case around deploying networks in the hi-tech and competitive cities of Silicon Valley.

Verizon and AT&T are already using fixed LTE to replace DSL and extend their broadband services to rural areas, and they see fixed connectivity as the first use case for 5G, enabling them to move beyond their fiber service areas and reduce costs in suburban or rural areas.

Google may be thinking in the same way since it bought Webpass in June. The US ISP expands Google’s deployment options in some interesting locations – primarily Greater Miami, Chicago, Boston and several Californian cities (San Francisco, Oakland, Emeryville, Berkeley and San Diego).

Webpass was founded in 2003 and it owns and operates an Ethernet network in these areas, and so does not need to rely on telcos or MSOs for backhaul for the point-to-point wireless links, in high frequency spectrum, that constitute the bulk of its network. It claims to have “tens of thousands” of customers, many in apartment blocks and business premises, and offers services from 100Mbps to 1Gbps. Webpass is also testing a technology called ‘pcell’, a wireless antenna personally assigned to a user within a building or other area of poor coverage, according to Trefis.

Google Fiber has already expressed interest in combining fiber and wireless for the best balance of cost, flexibility and performance. In April it gained approval to test broadband services in the 3.5 GHz band in parts of Kansas City, where it already has a fiber network.

And Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google’s holding company Alphabet, told a recent shareholder meeting: “There appear to be wireless solutions that are point-to-point that are inexpensive now because of the improvements in semiconductors; that these solutions are cheaper than digging up your garden… and can carry the gigabit performance.”

Webpass president Charles Barr said in a blog post last week: “Google Fiber’s resources will enable Webpass to grow faster and reach many more customers than we could as a standalone company.”

Of course, Google’s network roll-outs, whether wireless or fiber, are never about the company wanting to be an operator on a large scale. Just as it did when it threatened to acquire 700 MHz spectrum to support a wholesale network, or when it build WiFi city meshes near its HQ, it sought to showcase how an alternative way of deploying and monetizing networks is possible, and provoke complacent telcos into action.

Open, service-driven, affordable connectivity will drive usage, but Google would rather telcos, or other providers, deliver that – so it may not have been too dismayed by AT&T’s decision to bring its Gigapower 1Gbps broadband service to some Silicon Valley towns where Google Fiber is planned, including San Jose and Mountain View.

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