Duluth dodged Google’s fiber optic bullet

Remember that campaign in Duluth six years ago to convince Google to select Duluth as a city to test out a high-speed fiber-optic broadband network?

Duluth even promised to name every first born male Google Fiber and every first born female Googlette Fiber if the company selected the city.

Alas, Kansas City, Kan., got the Google love, leaving Duluth in the high-speed backwater of Lake Superior.

Perhaps it’s just as well.

The ambitious plan to wire America with high-speed service is over.

The Wall St. Journal reports that the test in several cities has resulted in what just about anyone could have told Google, and now its spin-off Alphabet: It’s too expensive.

Instead the company will explore using wireless systems. But the Journal suggests that the grand scheme all along may not have been what was pitched to cities like Duluth.

The new strategies are in response to the headaches of building a fiber network. In Kansas City, homeowners complained about destroyed lawns and ruptured gas lines. In Nashville, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky., competing telecom firms are blocking the company from stringing fiber on their utility poles.

Some analysts have long suspected that Alphabet’s primary goal was to prod other broadband firms to increase their speeds. AT&T, Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable, which recently was acquired by Charter Communications Inc., have done so in some competing markets.

In San Antonio, for example, neighbors say the Google Fiber project has ruined a neighborhood park.

Hiawatha Bray, at the Boston Globe, says he’s been wondering what Google’s bosses were thinking when they launched the effort in 2010.

Then it came to me: They launched Google Fiber mainly because it was cool. There’s a lot of that going on at Google, a company with enough billions in the bank to take the occasional flyer—four-legged robots, for instance, or educated thermostats. But lately the company’s been backing away from some of its high-stakes investments, in a manner that suggests it’s starting to balk at the high price of cool tech.

Duluth still doesn’t have a fancy system for high-speed Internet. But there’s good news. There are no kids running around there named Google Fiber.

  • Dan

    “Meanwhile, the company is trying to cut costs and accelerate its expansion elsewhere by leasing existing fiber or asking cities or power companies to build the networks instead of building its own.”

    The above quote from WSJ makes sense, stringing fiber along poles is cheaper than digging trenches, but you need access to said poles.
    Interested to see what they’ve got in mind for “wireless”, some high-frequency line of sight I’m assuming, maybe millimeter?
    Still in the works from the sound of it. Since they’re stressing “urban areas”, maybe rooftop-to-rooftop installations for multi-unit dwellings?

    Note “accelerate its expansion” is far from pulling the plug on the project. They’re still delivering gigabit internet in markets like KC, and still plan to roll out some form of fast service to more markets. Still sounds pretty ambitious to me.

    • BJ

      >stringing fiber along poles is cheaper than digging trenches

      Digging trench is usually safer for the line, wind and ice tend to not be kind to poles and lines on them. Repairing fiber break is a major process, not at all as easy as electric copper lines.

      • Dan

        That’s true but we’re talking trade offs here, as they come across (predictable, honestly) cost issues building out. I presumed this is for last mile only. Maybe they can live with more frequent repairs and down time, for a neighborhood here or there, vs higher upfront cost.

        My local telco was just trying to sell me on fiber service, and i asked where they buried the line, and they said they strung it on the poles, is the reason I was thinking this.

        I’m not familiar with the repair process, other than experiencing repair times being rather long and unpredictable when someone digs up a backbone.

        But, I’d think not having to figure out where the cut is would save time, as would not having to dig up the line/re-bury it, or whatever they’re doing when they breach their SLA for the hundredth time. Plus assuming lower (non backbone) bandwidth lines would be quicker to repair?

        Edit: now that I think about it a little more, my local telco wasn’t exactly offering gig.

  • PaulJ

    If you want to live in glass houses (fiber optic), you have to throw stones (dig).

  • Leroy

    Ahh, gotta love when folks go all NIMBY. Just like how people would prefer to get full cell reception, the hate the sight of cell towers.

  • Jeff

    I’m involved with technology, and I’m grateful to not be back in the 300 baud modem days, but I can’t see the need for gigabit speed in my home. With my 80 Mb cable connection I’m doing pretty good. I don’t need to download movies in seconds. Streaming works pretty good and my email gets delivered. I can RDC into work and it could be a little faster but it’s serviceable. What am I missing?

    • YOU may not need that much bandwidth, but others may.

      /Generally OK with the 100+ Mb I have at my place…

      • Jeff

        Some people but not that many I’d guess. I’m sure there were the days when people said we’re just fine with one toilet or whatever, but I’m not enough of a futurist to envision what happens when everyone has 1Gb or better. Maybe I don’t have enough devices in my life or watch enough TV.

        • …or game online or deal with big ‘ol graphics files.

          • Tim

            Or have more than one person using the bandwidth at once, like when my SO is trying to stream Netflix or Hulu while I play WoW.

          • Jessica Ryan

            Fellow WoW player… I feel your pain.

        • Jessica Ryan

          “Some people but not that many I’d guess.”

          Yes that many. Definitely that many. And many more to come.

          The way people consume information in general, as well as hobbies and social interaction, has changed immensely. It doesn’t even necessarily mean “more devices.”

          For example, my daughter and I use Netflix and Amazon Prime exclusively for movies, which we run through our ancient Wii gaming console (notably a device that was invented prior to blazing internet speeds). It is way cheaper than purchasing movies or even renting them physically from places like RedBox, and for me personally, it has nothing to do with the need/want for the latest technology/devices. It is about saving a ton of money while still being able to access entertainment for my family. These services require streaming, and therefore, high bandwidth availability.

          Other examples (from my own life):

          I wouldn’t be able to go to college if it weren’t for fast and reliable internet.

          My daughter stays in contact with her father, who is in the Army, via video chat thanks to fast and reliable internet.

          • Jeff

            What speed is your broadband? I was trying to say I get along pretty well doing similar activities with my 80Mb connection and I’m not sure what it would matter if I had something as fast as a Gigabit. The population of my house is only two, so maybe with a average-sized family the demand is much higher. Wouldn’t a Roku or Chromecast be better than Wii? They’re pretty cheap. But then I don’t know much.

    • jon

      If you get a bigger pipe the world will find a way to fill it…

      honestly I was Ok at 8Mb… didn’t turn down the 20Mb for a cheaper price when I had the chance, but it seems like every year content providers want to push more down my pipe… there are fewer and fewer articles and more and more videos… fewer pictures and more animated Gifs and videos… and the videos are now 360 degrees virtual reality…

      Some times I miss plain text… it was such a simple clear and fast communication form….

      • Jeff

        I sort of wonder if it’s the law of diminishing returns. Maybe not a good analogy but I can only use so much water at my house. They can run a bigger pipe but I have all that I need for now.

        • John

          I don’t think it is. I think electricity is maybe a better analogy than water – we don’t seem to find too many new ways to use water.

          Electricity on the other hand. . . I have an old house (1920ish), and we have what I would describe as too little capacity in our system. I prefer gas appliances, but that’s good, because I couldn’t add an electric furnace, water heater, stove, or clothes dryer without significant investment in updating the home infrastructure (I’m not even sure if the line coming from the pole to the house can carry more load without being replaced). None of those things were of concern when the house was built.

          I’m pretty glad I have enough capacity for air conditioning.

      • PaulJ

        ah the Gopher hotel

    • Dan

      360 degree side-by-side 3d 4k video
      VR cloud gaming (not a thing yet, I don’t think)

      It’s overkill for most current-case home use, but building out networks that just meet current demand isn’t their goal, their long view is ever-increasing demand for data. And they want you to get as much data as they can use to sell advertising.

    • Jeff

      Until we reach the resolution of the human eye there will be more visual data to pack into an internet pipeline. On top of that you hear about the internet of things, if that data can be transmitted at real time you wouldn’t need hardly any storage on your devices (cutting down on size/weight) which means the code/commands can be stored elsewhere and all instructions can be transmitted on a limitless internet pipeline.

      • jon

        At the average distance for a computer screen (2.5 feet) a 13″ 4k screen exceeds the resolution of an adult human eye.

        Right now the screen I’m typing this on exceeds the resolution my eye can manage.

        If you sit 6 feet away from your 30″ 4k tv screen you’ve roughly met the resolution of the human eye, if you sit further away you’ve exceeded the resolution of the human eye.

        Netflix streams upto 4k right now for a number of titles…

        • PaulJ

          Why doesn’t it look like looking out a window? Is it because the camera image only has one focus?

          • jon

            I’m going to guess because Windows aren’t uniformly backlit…

            Though allot of the 4k screens do look very realistic. Especially if you get them setup with a high refresh rate.

          • Alex

            That’s kinda part of it. The problem with any screen is that the image displayed to you is what an optical sensor other than your eye saw being replicated by a device with a limited color space (and it may have even had some tweaks made to the color in between there, too). Your eye sees in a certain color space, but the camera and the screen probably can’t use that full gamut.

            It’s just like how high-resolution print photography also doesn’t look just like looking through a window. The color space of the film (or digital sensor) is one set and the color space of the photo paper (or digital printer) is another color space, but both of those color spaces are subsets of what your eye is capable of seeing.

  • KariBemidji

    In some parts of North Central Minnesota, we can get up to 1000 mb (if we’re willing to pay, of course). Thanks to our very forward thinking local cooperative, we had broadband before many of my relatives living in the cities did. http://paulbunyan.net/gigazone/map/

    • Jeff

      Keep in mind that much of this outstate high-speed internet is being subsidized by those of us in the cities. I did see the waste of these programs out in Ely, MN last year. A utility company was laying fiber optic cables down a dirt road out in the middle of no-where about 5-10 miles outside of Ely where only smaller cabins existed…only about half the residents even wanted the cable line…the other half just wanted to “get away” from the internet. I do wonder how much money was spent on a project like that.


      • Kind of like that pesky “Rural Electrification Act of 1936” – initial cost in 2016 dollars of over $3.6 Billion.

        • Jeff

          Sure, if we want to make it a public utility let’s do that that…instead of creating a government sanctioned monopoly in some areas and subsidies in others…

          • If private business were interested in the market, wouldn’t they be in the market?

          • Jeff

            Then let’s just make internet a public utility, personally I don’t see it being much different than electric or gas…but the technology could change drastically over the next 5-10 years, that Google wireless internet could be the real deal…plus Facebook is in the process of creating drone aircraft internet network.


          • It’s already well on its way of being defined as a utility:


          • BJ

            Not really, there are places that running a 10 million dollar line to just isn’t worth it to a company. But for the state or nation if that line isn’t run then the small town wouldn’t have a chance to survive, and that might be worth way more than that.

          • PaulJ

            So in big cities it’d be a business and out of town it would be governmental? Would that mean the government would be competing with private companies for vendors?

          • Jeff

            How does that system work with electricity or gas? One provider that has to get government approval for rate increases…to determine if it’s warranted.

          • PaulJ

            If we want to go down that road (in a manner of speaking), we could. But I don’t think it’d work if some are private and some government. If it is as private as possible at least there is some market force involved.

          • Usually because the local government allows a company to operate as a monopoly. Quid pro quo.

          • Jeff

            Yep, they call it a “franchise”…all for free internet for city hall…how easily our governmental institutions can be purchased.

          • Jay T. Berken

            The “franchise” fee is applied by the governing body for the utility to use its right-of-way and utility easements. This system allows companies to have lower cost for their facilities, and someone has to give and govern a public right-of-way to give a corridor to utilities to use. Otherwise utilities would have to purchase their own easements from private landowners to lay their cables. I am not aware of “all for free internet for city hall” anywhere unless it was negotiated.

          • Jay T. Berken

            Electric utilities are regulated monopolies. In Minnesota there are three types that are IPO (e.g. Xcel) which is regulated by the Minnesota PUC, Co-ops which are private companies which are regulated by an elected board within their members and Municipalities which are regulated either by the city counsel or a public elected or appointed commission. Since they’re monopolies, they do need some regulation so utility companies do not price gouge they’re costumers (like your cable tv bill).

      • Kassie

        You actually spoke to the owners and found out what percentage wanted it? Because my parents live on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere in a small cabin and they and all their neighbors are very excited about getting broadband from Paul Bunyan.

        • Jeff

          My friend’s grandmother lives 100% of the time on that road and she spoke to the neighbors, so yes. She also spoke to the other neighbors on other nearby roads…

  • T Willah

    Bob, one clarification — Duluth’s existing system for high-speed internet is plenty fancy, thank you very much.

    • What’s it called? Are any kids named after it? No? Not fancy enough. :*)

  • Tyler

    Duluth didn’t dodge a bullet, they missed out.

    This WSJ article reads like a Google attack piece. It talks about all the things Google (& parent company Alphabet) has done wrong in the last few years, and doesn’t address the *real* challenge Google Fiber is facing: incumbent providers.

    Google has been block and stymied at every step by other telecoms refusing to play ball, because *they* are afraid of true competition. I’m absolutely furious that my two options for “high speed” are 1. Comcast cable (way over priced and horrendous customer service); and 2) Centurylink DSL (“soon upgrading to gigbit” but not to the house like GF).

    Please go read this article: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/07/frontier-teams-with-att-to-block-google-fiber-access-to-utility-poles/

    This is only one occurrence where Google is trying to deploy fiber. They face this kind of crap in every market they’ve been trying to roll out. What the incumbent ISP are getting away with in our country is despicable.