Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Google Fiber—Thumbs Up & Thumbs Down

Note to the patient long-term reader: I'm going to attempt something a bit different in reaction to Google's latest announcements and put a series of related posts that come together tell a larger story. This particular post you can consider a "sidebar" containing interesting and related material but somewhat off the main story-line that looks at the lessons local communities can take away from Google's complex attempts to build something new inside the constraints of the US market. 

Look for the bunnies to find posts that are in this series. That and the tag "GoogleFiber"

Google's fiber to the home effort in the Kansas Cities is being reported as simple, straight news. Reports simply say here's what they are offering—and mostly they are simply digesting the Kansas City announcement presentation. That's fine but it's repetitious. The items linked to in this post are amount the few that take a hard look at the consequences of what's been announced and pass some sort of judgment on them—a Thumbs up or Thumbs down. Trying to divine the consequences a lot more interesting and often brings to the surface things that Google has left unsaid.

These stories are worth looking at and chewing over but I'm treating them as a sidebar to my series of posts on the implications of Google Fiber for Lafayette and other FTTH municipal networks.

3 disappointments from the Google Fiber launch
Stacey Higginbotham is one of the smartest reporters on the network beat (check out her take on the economics of this project if you have any doubts) and is generally positive about the Kansas Cities project. But in this story she lays out some disappointments—and a lot of the digerati share her misgivings.

Open Networking: Google has backtracked on its initial promise to build an open network; it now is doing what almost every network in the country where the state has not forced the networks to be wholesale only (municipally-owned ones that is) and closed its networks. You can't buy wholesale bandwidth on Google's fiber and expect to roll your own service. Google runs the services that are offered to the public over its fibers. (There's a raft of "good," or at least practical reasons for that but Google just might have had the muscle and deep pockets to defy them. That it didn't should be instructive.)

Google is not being open about how it did this: When Google first started talking about this project it was conceived of as a way to demonstrate that FTTH didn't need to be costly and to that end it said it would offer continuous information about how it achieved what it thought would be astonishing results. That simply hasn't happened. No one sees any details about what and how Google's build and thought processes are being played out. And there isn't much sign that they're going to be open about any implementation detail or understanding any time soon.

It gives Google a lot of control and information: Google is headed for more vertical integration in Kansas  City than even the telcos or cablecos now have. They control everything from the network to the user OS to the content and Google can track and cross reference user behavior at every level. For those that already worry about a business model built on advertising the new degree of vertical integration and the potential for privacy violations and simple manipulation are very daunting.

Google Fiber TV = the promise of Interactive TV
Marc Cantor has been in the interactive media arena since, well since he helped start it up via MacroMind Director in 1987. He sees the Google project as the realization of his dreams. I'm not so sure that it all maps to "interactive" in any of the ways that a program like MacroMind would have had in mind but Marc does offer a very nice list of the good things about the Kansas Cities Project.

BenoƮt Felten gives Kansas City a big "meh." He discounts the significance of an affordable gig and a free "average" bandwidth offerings and concentrates on some of the same issues that Higgenbotham raises. Felten's basic point is that all of this has been done before and the only thing exciting about this effort is who is doing. Felten, using his European vantage point to good effect, notes the similarities between items which look very innovative to US eyes and their European counterparts. These range from free bandwidth loss leader products (didn't work) to France's Illiad making their own quite innovative hardware (didn't seem to save much money). Well worth the dyspeptic read.

Google Fiber Is The Most Disruptive Thing The Company's Done Since Gmail
or so says this BusinessWeek analyst. Google Fiber may be disruptive, I certainly hope so. but I'm not particularly buying this line of reasoning. (Starting with the idea that Gmail was an innovative disruption.)

Let’s Not Get Too Excited About Google Fiber… Yet 
TechCrunch's take is pretty much that all this is only interesting until Google demonstrates that it can handle the problems that are immediately in front of it. To wit: "THE ROLLOUT PROBLEM." "THE INSTALLATION PROBLEM." "THE CUSTOMER SERVICE PROBLEM," and "THE CONTENT PROBLEM."

The author's point is that these are not trivial issues and that no one should assume things will roll smoothly. The point is well-taken as anyone who has watched Lafayette's efforts will attest. Google's launch date is already later than it initially said it would be, rollout will take 18 months even by Google's estimate. Getting trained install techs is not a trivial job; they'll simply have to be imported and Google has taken on considerable inside work that differs from that with which industry techs will be familiar. LUS Fiber initially wanted to avoid any inside work. But that was unrealistic and interior work can bog down a crew in myriad unpredictable ways...it's a specie of remodeling and nothing ever goes as planned and every instance is unique. Google has a long-standing customer service problem. That must be successfully addressed; bad service is why people hate the cable companies and Google the giant corporation isn't going to be cut many breaks. Content: that's a bitch and getting the full range of content is a killer. Launching without HBO will be tough sledding.

The Economics of the Google Gigabit
Chris Mitchell of the Institute for self-reliance is coming from a position that this Lafayette Pro Fiber shares: What's most interesting to him is what the implications are for the sorts of municipal networks and broadband cooperatives that the Institute has been promoting. It's the gigabit—and a gigabit at such an enticing price—that rivets the attentions of other builders of city-size networks. How does Google do it? How can they offer a gig at such a low price? (Understand that in many communities a gig is simply not available at any price; where it is available it's in the multiple thousands of dollars a month; and a really fantastic price has been, oh, 300 dollars or so.)

Mitchell's basic take is that Google is not a city-size network, it is an enormous continent-spanning behemoth that generates and serves so much content that it effectively never has to buy bandwidth like the little guys do. (Slipped in there is the best explanation that I've seen of how ISP's actually buy bandwidth and why netflix inflating the peak during prime time matters to small operators.—And why large networks like Cox or AT&T probably are charging exorbitantly more for bandwidth than they could and, at the same time, smaller networks, even when they actually charge more per, aren't overcharging.)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Forbes: If you want cheap, fast Internet, move to Lafayette, La.

In a Forbes article titled Complacent Telcos Deliver Americans Third Rate Broadband Service At High Prices Lafayette's home-grown fiber network gets a nice call-out in the very first sentence:
If you want cheap, fast Internet, move to Lafayette, La., or better yet, Paris. The New America Foundation released on Thursday “The Cost Of Connectivity,” a global study comparing triple-play bundles (broadband, video, voice) in a few dozen cities worldwide. Not surprisingly, it underscores just how badly America lags the world in broadband speeds and prices.
Yup, if you want fast, cheap internet move to Lafayette; and yup, the US doesn't stack up so well in a global study except for the few bright spots like LUS Fiber.

The full study that Forbes cites is, at least in my judgment, not very well constructed but I can't argue with the New America Foundation's conclusions that the US lags badly in broadband services, that the problem is a distinct lack of competition, that the country's poor competitive status is due to policy decisions at the federal and state levels, and, most saliently for Lafayette, that the most obviously remedy would be federal legislation to free any municipality to build their own network.