A showy announcement with the governor and the mayor was only the beginning. As it turns out, threading thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable through a built-out city can be difficult, technically and legally.
Three months have passed since the tech titan Google declared that it would make early deployments of Google Fiber, its high-speed Internet service, in Raleigh and several other North Carolina municipalities.
A review of public records shows that planning for the long-anticipated service is well underway but that its advocates also have been navigating obstacles as Raleigh and its neighbors push to join the three current “Fiber cities.” Among areas still to be worked out: siting infrastructure such as “Fiber huts,” potential shared use of state and local resources, and ensuring that services don’t get to low-income people last.
And considering the infancy of these “gigabit” networks, the Triangle will likely be in the spotlight as construction gets underway in the Triangle. Raleigh, Durham, Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Garner and Morrisville are all on the list.
“We’re early enough into the game where people are going to be paying a lot of attention,” said Craig Settles, a telecommunications consultant who blogs about the industry.
“People are still going to figure out, how are we going to do this? What will be the success factors in Raleigh?”
Records indicate the city expects the heaviest fiber installation work to come over a two-year period; Google has not published a schedule, but it is hiring for nine positions in the Triangle.
The service promises speeds a hundred times faster than typical broadband at a cost of about $70, plus television for an additional $60. Larger competitors also are upgrading speeds here.
Google declined to comment in detail for this article.
Spinning a network
First, there’s the question of actually building the thing. Raleigh staffers have been working intently this year to find spots where Google could build nodes for the thousands of miles of line it plans to run.
Known as “Fiber huts,” these 28-foot-long, 9-foot-high buildings are the connections between smaller areas and the broader network.
The city has identified at least 11 primary sites for the huts, and the Raleigh City Council may consider opening those sites to Google at a meeting this month.
Google representatives visited Raleigh late in January, just before and after the Fiber announcement, and toured some of the land, assessing factors such as flood risk and accessibility.
Meanwhile, the town of Cary has identified four potential sites. In both municipalities, the sites share land with fire stations, parks and other government properties.
The locations under consideration give few clues about Google’s plan of attack.
“They are really spread out throughout the city,” said Gail Roper, chief information officer for the city of Raleigh.
Google likely won’t have to build its entire network alone. The city of Raleigh recently laid roughly 120 miles of fiber-optic cable.
That municipal network will connect government facilities when it’s activated, but it may have room for Google’s high-speed traffic, too. Cary and Holly Springs have similar connections. Collectively, they may have been key in luring the company.
“When an entity like Google comes in, what they’re looking for are assets, so that they don’t have to spend capital dollars building out, if not necessary,” Roper said.
She said she thinks that Google Fiber also chose earlier cities in part for their existing cables and conduits. In fact, she was chief information officer in two of those cities – Kansas City, Mo., and Austin, Texas – and oversaw construction of some of that infrastructure.
In Raleigh, Google has “expressed interest” in using municipal networks, according to email records, and has obtained maps of city infrastructure, but its plans are still unclear, Roper said.
“As soon as we find out exactly what they want, we’ll be able to respond,” Roper said.
State law may complicate things. In some cases, Google may also need permission from the N.C. Department of Transportation, which worked on some of the networks and has some sway over them.
DOT staff in the past have been “uncomfortable with considering innovative uses,” of those networks, wrote Jeff Maxim, a city staffer who has coordinated some of the research that helped Raleigh land Google. DOT staff weren’t immediately available for comment. It’s unclear whether the issue has been resolved, but government staff showed optimism in emails.
Money and people
All this planning will increase demands on city staff. Charlotte’s government expects to bring on anywhere from one to 10 temporary positions to keep up, according to an email from a staffer.
In Raleigh, Google expects to serve more than 150,000 residents, according to city documents. The deployment could require the city to issue 50 permits per day, requiring at least one new technician for development services. Roper expects few other hires.
The city also will be collecting money from Google as it approves those permits, possibly more than $300,000 per year, records state.
But one of the central questions may be more about human capital than financial capital.
Google has marketed its service as a boon for business and society at large. Its publicity materials are heavy on the service’s potential to improve lives, and it has built massive hype for the service through a nationwide city-selection contest.
Those kinds of expectations can become fraught, especially as Google picks which neighborhoods will come first. It has focused in the past on the places where it signs up the most early subscribers, but that can result in an apparent divide between rich and poor neighborhoods, Settles said.
“In the beginning, in Kansas City, there was a lot of people feeling that they were not going to be served,” he explained. “There was a PR stumble, in those underserved communities feeling they’re not part of the process.”
Company staffers already have been in touch with the city about a “digital inclusion” effort, and the company is hiring “community impact managers” who will support the program.
And, as always, Google will have competition. AT&T, which is deploying a similarly speedy GigaPower service, already is providing free service to a number of community centers.
Settles said he expects more information about Google’s plans could emerge within four or five months, based on previous experience. Meanwhile, patience is the word.
“Everybody wants to have a network tomorrow, across the board,” he said. “The reality of building a network is that somebody has to be last.”