By Jennifer McEntee.
The online job postings start with a disclaimer: “At this time, there is no guarantee that San Diego will be named a Google Fiber city. We’re exploring interest and talent for the opportunity in advance.”
Google is soliciting applicants for community impact manager, city manager and associate city manager for its Google Fiber-branded internet service in San Diego, but only if candidates don’t mind some uncertainty.
“Due to the dynamic nature of local government, utilities, and organizations, we’re looking for flexible, senior leaders,” the postings warn.
No one – not Google, whose engineers must study factors like topography and housing density, nor city of San Diego officials tasked with completing a detailed checklist about existing infrastructure, land availability and city permits – is yet willing to commit that Google will be able to bring its super-fast internet speeds to San Diego.
Why is Google Fiber a big deal?
Google says it can give customers internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, or 1,000 megabits per second, compared with the national average of 11.7 megabits per second.
In case those numbers don’t mean much to you, that’s the difference between using one device at a time and using four at the same time with no slowdown, or between downloading a movie in seconds instead of minutes.
Google’s gigabit internet costs $70 per month in the few markets where it’s already available, though Google hasn’t determined how it would be priced for San Diego residential customers.
It’s a glimmer of cyber hope for a city with 1.3 million people but just three major internet service providers: cable companies Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable and wireless provider AT&T. The traditional carriers are ramping up their speeds to meet subscribers’ demands for faster data rates, but the potential for a new entrant to the market has many hoping more competition will mean faster internet service for everyone and better prices.
What’s Google’s competition here?
“Gigabit speed” is the latest buzz phrase in internet service offerings. Each provider is finding new ways to market their “giga” brand.
Cox began offering its version of gigabit internet, called Gigablast, in August to three San Diego residential communities. It’s up and running at the Pinnacle apartment building in downtown San Diego, in North County’s Del Sur neighborhood and is just now being implemented in the Harmony Grove community of Escondido. Gigablast residential rates start at $99 per month.
Suzanne Schlundt, Cox’s vice president of marketing who oversees its Gigablast service, said Cox’s footprint covers about 75 percent of San Diego County.
As the first provider in the county to offer gigabit speeds to residential customers, Cox isn’t responding to pressure from the likes of Google, but is instead working to improve its customer experience, Schlundt said. Cox’s research finds the average home has at least six internet-connected devices.
“Our roadmap delivers to all markets regardless of competition,” Schlundt said.
Gigablast should be available to residents countywide within the next couple years, she said, though there’s no firm timeline.
Time Warner and to a lesser degree AT&T cover the remaining portions of the region with internet service.
AT&T announced last week it intends to expand its gigabit-speed GigaPower internet service to metropolitan areas including San Diego through 2016. Meanwhile, Time Warner Cable has plans in the coming months to begin offering San Diego customers its TWC Maxx internet service, which offers speeds of up to 300 megabits per second. Local prices haven’t been made public.
But what about Google Fiber?
Google and city of San Diego staffers have had several in-person meetings and exchanged phone calls and emails since September to discuss bringing Google’s fiber-optic network here. But they aren’t ready to project potential expenses or set a deadline on the decision. So far Google is focusing on the city of San Diego, not the entire county.
“The city has been a great partner. They’re very responsive,” said Brien Bell, Google Fiber’s expansion lead for the west region.
Google Fiber has only been fully rolled out in three markets: Austin, Texas, Provo, Utah, and Kansas City, Mo. It’s tough to say what a typical timeline might look like, Bell said.
“Every city is different. We don’t have a clock ticking internally,” he said. “It’s important to do the due-diligence work first.”
In Nashville, for instance, the exploration process recently took about 11 months, Bell said.
Stacey LoMedico, the city of San Diego’s assistant chief operating officer, is coordinating the city’s interactions with Google. She said the work so far has been collecting and sharing data, like information about San Diego’s geography and real estate assets. Google isn’t receiving any special perks or incentives from the city, she said.
“We’re following their lead,” LoMedico said. “Obviously, from a city that wants to be known as a ‘smart city’ at the forefront of technology, it’s important for us to have fast digital networks. It’s very important for us to work with all service providers.”
As for those provisional San Diego job postings, Bell said Google Fiber wants to be ready “just in case.”
“We need to be prepared,” he said. “We want to hit the ground running.”
How hard is it to get faster internet?
Delivering faster internet speeds isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. Service providers caution that even if their gigabit-speed internet brand is newly available in a city, it might not be up and ready to use in your neighborhood for a while longer.
Many of the complaints about Google Fiber in markets where it is available are from customers who’ve signed up but are still waiting to be connected.
“Our goal is to have customers installed as quickly as we can, but some things can take longer,” Bell said. “We try to communicate that clearly with customers. We hope we’re getting better with that.”
While existing service providers like Cox are investing billions to upgrade their existing networks, Google is essentially starting from scratch.
Google’s engineering team must consider any local factors that would affect construction of a fiber-optic network, from the height of the hills to the depths of our flood zones, to the density of San Diego’s housing, to the configuration of existing infrastructure like power poles, gas lines and water works.
If Google decides it can build here, a street-by-street network will be designed. Google spokespeople describe it as a “hub and spoke” design in which the city is encircled with fiber cables that branch off into individual neighborhoods. Thousands of miles of fiber-optic cables would be installed under and above ground.
Bell said he doesn’t foresee any huge roadblocks for Google Fiber in San Diego. There are local challenges everywhere, he said, some just take longer to resolve.
“I can’t point to any one or two things that would be deal-breakers,” Bell said. “It’s a process that takes time. To date, we haven’t said no to any city.”