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Google bringing its high-speed Internet service to the Triangle

Gov. Pat McCrory gives Durham mayor Bill Bell an enthusiastic handshake after Google announced plans to host gigabit broadband in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Morrisville, Cary, Carrboro and Garner during a press conference Tuesday, January 27, 2015 at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.
Gov. Pat McCrory gives Durham mayor Bill Bell an enthusiastic handshake after Google announced plans to host gigabit broadband in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Morrisville, Cary, Carrboro and Garner during a press conference Tuesday, January 27, 2015 at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

Google will web the Triangle with thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable in the coming years, connecting homes and businesses in seven municipalities to the Internet through its high-speed Google Fiber service.

Company representatives announced their plans to much fanfare on Tuesday afternoon, with Gov. Pat McCrory on hand at the the N.C. Museum of History to welcome an upgrade that is a giant leap for the region’s Internet connectivity.

Google Fiber will deploy in Raleigh, Durham, Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Garner and Morrisville. The company hasn’t announced when service will begin.

The Triangle is one of four metropolitan areas to join Google’s Internet service in the recently announced expansion, which is Google Fiber’s largest yet. The company chose the Triangle, Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville from a pool of 21 metropolitan areas.

“This is really going to be the thing that helps us in education. It’s going to be the thing that helps us create jobs. And it’s going to help gain access to everybody,” McCrory said.

Just as North Carolina once was the Good Roads State, McCrory said, it now could become the “21st Century Digital Infrastructure State.”

Google’s service, which is now operating in only three markets nationally, offers speeds about 100 times faster than a typical broadband connection.

Tech advocates say that kind of access opens up new uses for the Internet, including the transfer of huge files for scientific research. It can also make YouTube load instantaneously, or record eight TV shows at once, or allow for band practice across the Internet, according to Google.

Google has declined to say how soon construction will begin, when service will start or which areas will come online first. The rollout will happen in phases. A gigabit connection should cost about $70 per month; Google also will sell television access for about $60 more.

Not just an upgrade

More than just an upgrade, Google’s announcement begins a huge, market-changing investment in local Internet infrastructure.

Existing providers until now haven’t run high-speed fiber lines to residences, in part because slower technologies dominate the market already. It also remains to be seen how many consumers will pay for ultrafast broadband speeds, given that few applications today require that much bandwidth.

“The business case for fiber has to take into account competing with other technology types already in place, or deploying in sparsely populated areas,” wrote Wes King, spokesman for the state Office of Digital Infrastructure, in an email.

“Google is unusual in being able to fund a brand-new fiber deployment in areas with existing service.”

Only 9 percent of the state had fiber-to-the-home access at the end of 2013, ranking 35th nationally, according to the Federal Communications Commission. A rural cooperative in sparsely populated Wilkes County and the city of Wilson were among the state’s first residential gigabit services.

Faster service ahead

While a basic broadband service provider might pull information from the Internet at 4 megabits per second, gigabit providers promise download and upload speeds of 1,000 megabits per second, with optional television access.

Now Google’s presence may be spurring its competitors to action. AT&T’s U-verse with GigaPower service deployed less than two months before Google’s announcement. It offers a gigabit connection, at nearly twice Google’s price, in parts of Raleigh, Cary, Carrboro and Chapel Hill, with an expansion planned for Durham.

Time-Warner Cable also plans lesser upgrades for local subscribers, maxing out at about a third the speed of the gigabit connections.

“They’re going to compete not just on speed but on price, on terms of service, on different types of offerings,” said Elise Kohn, program director for N.C. Next Generation Networks, a regional alliance pushing for better broadband.

Years of hype

Google’s new service has made the biggest splash of any new offering, thanks in part to a yearslong marketing campaign that capitalized on the popular perception that the dominant domestic Internet providers have kept access speeds low while other countries raced ahead.

Google in 2010 asked cities to make a pitch for inclusion in Google Fiber, then in its infancy. Cities quickly proved their thirst.

“We’ve received nearly a thousand responses from cities and other organizations that want to bring Fiber,” said Kevin Lo, general manager for Google Fiber. “Today, gigabit Internet is catching on.”

Raleigh Councilman Bonner Gaylord even promised in 2010 to name his children after Google’s founders, if Fiber came through soon enough.

Since then, several regional cities and towns joined the N.C. Next Generation Network, which recruited AT&T to deploy its local gigabit service.

Helping to build it

In 2014, Google announced a shortlist of nine metropolitan areas, asking the cities for maps of utility poles, utility lines and conduit tunnels through which the company could thread its fiber.

The company also has asked for “streamlined” government processes. In Kansas City, governments waived millions in fees and gave the company access to public land, The New York Times reported.

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said the city was considering procedural changes. For example, the City Council might change rules so that it votes on fewer matters related to the network’s construction, according to Mayor Nancy McFarlane.

This scale of network growth is unprecedented here, according to Bill Stice, technology director for the town of Cary. Even the deployment of the first-generation residential broadband networks in the 1990s doesn’t compare.

That first wave “was spread out over several years rather than all at one time,” Stice said. “This is going to happen very quickly. I don’t think people will really realize how much of a difference it will be.”

In total, Google will run enough cable to reach Canada and back, Lo said. That will bring disruptions, as crews will likely be boring small underground tunnels near and under streets, or hanging lines from utility poles.

Construction also will bring a new boom for people like Craig Cleveland, the owner of ConnectedFiber, of Leland.

“For the next several years, there will be a large increase in demand for my services,” he said.

He specializes in splicing fiber-optics, using a slight electric current to melt together the long glass strands in the core of the cables.

“Building these networks is extremely complicated – literally hundreds and thousands of people doing a variety of different functions for us,” Lo said.

Package deal

Google chose the Triangle because of its concentration of universities and bio-tech companies, Lo said.

“This is a big deal. We can’t wait to see what Raleigh-Durham does with world-class speeds,” he said.

The company pitches its product not just as an end to low-bandwidth frustrations, but a potential boon to business.

If a company’s employees can easily exchange large files between office and home, they might begin to work in new ways. That availability could even attract new businesses to an area.

“Ultrahigh-speed broadband is vital for our residents to take part in a global economy,” said McFarlane.

While many people would be hard-pressed to make full use of a gigabit connection, experts expect new uses for high-speed Internet will emerge. And if the Triangle has the hookup, it could become more attractive to developers working on those data-hungry apps.

“I think we are also well positioned to help develop the applications,” Kohn said.

However, the economic effects of a gigabit deployment are far from certain.

“No community in North Carolina has a success story, or even a downside story. The technology just hasn’t been available in the state,” said Robert Dinterman, an instructor and Ph.D. candidate at N.C. State University who has published papers about broadband.

Economic research has been slow to emerge about the few existing rollouts of gigabit service, he said. But he is sure of one thing.

“You can’t just increase broadband speeds and expect a large change,” he said. “You have to do something in addition.”

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