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Whatever happened to Google Fiber?

After stalled rollouts and a series of setbacks, the future of Google Fiber is hanging on by long, thin strands.

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If it feels like you've been waiting forever for Google Fiber, you're not alone. It has, after all, been more than a decade since Google's announcement that "fiber is coming." 

To be fair, Google Fiber is long established in some areas. Before temporarily halting fiber expansion in 2016, the company brought service to 11 major US markets. Even in those cities though, Google's internet service didn't reach all, or even most, households, leaving many wondering when and if their neighborhood would be eligible for service. Meanwhile, residents of 34 other metropolitan areas who were teased with the possibility of getting Google Fiber early on are still wondering if it will come to their city at all.

So what's going on with Google Fiber?

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Google representative Kevin Lo speaking at the Provo Convention Center in 2013 to announce that the city had been selected for Google Fiber service.

George Frey/Getty Images

A decade of deployment

Let's start with where Google Fiber has successfully established service. In addition to Kansas City, Google Fiber's inaugural location, the service is also currently available in Atlanta; Huntsville, Alabama; Orange County, California; Charlotte and the Raleigh/Durham area, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Austin and San Antonio, Texas; Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, you'll find the greatest serviceability in cities where Google Fiber got its earliest start -- Kansas City, Austin and Provo. Save for a few unserviced pockets (such as north Austin and the Kansas City suburb of Independence), Google Fiber is available throughout the bulk of these areas. 

Huntsville also boasts a relatively high service area. Though service came to Huntsville later than other locations, Google Fiber was able to rapidly set up a wide coverage area by piggybacking off of existing municipal fiber-optic networks -- a tactic that may be the key to future expansion efforts.

Not all Google Fiber cities see the same widespread coverage, however. In places like Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville and San Antonio, where rollouts began much later and large municipal fiber networks were not as readily available, serviceability is random at best.

The fiber freeze

In 2016, before Google Fiber could develop a significant footprint in new markets, the company abruptly announced an immediate "pause" on all fiber-optic projects, likely due to high costs. And though it appears the hiatus is over, there is no indication of intent to significantly expand coverage in current Google Fiber markets.

On the Charlotte Google Fiber page, for example, the company says it is "working to bring Google Fiber to more communities in Charlotte" but makes no mention of where or when service expansions could happen. Perhaps even more discouraging, every Google Fiber city page from Atlanta to Salt Lake City displays the same generic statement. 

"We're building on our mission to connect more people to fast, reliable internet in Google Fiber cities across the country," a Google spokesperson tells CNET. "Google Fiber construction teams are actively working to build out our networks in each one of our existing Fiber cities, and we're expanding to new neighboring communities in some of those cities." 

Internet customers in these regions and others are eager for more options, especially from a provider like Google Fiber, but the initial costs and hassles of running new fiber lines are likely to prohibit significant further expansion. Running new fiber-optic lines can cost an average of $27,000 per mile, not to mention the required planning and labor that come with it. 

Had Google Fiber been able to offer widespread gigabit service in major markets before rival ISPs could catch up, the initial costs of running fiber lines may have been well worth it. That ship may have sailed, though, as ISP juggernauts including AT&T Fiber, Spectrum, Verizon Fios and Xfinity now offer gigabit speeds in many of the same markets in which Google Fiber had previously expressed interest. In order to compete, Google Fiber would have to employ more cost-effective methods of delivering service.

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An example of the "nanotrenching" technique Google Fiber installers used in Louisville. The strategy didn't prove effective, and Google ultimately pulled out of the city altogether.

Jason Hiner/CNET

Best laid plans

In 2017, Google Fiber was cautiously optimistic that a new deployment technique known as "nanotrenching" would significantly reduce the costs and efforts associated with laying new fiber lines. The process, which involves laying lines as shallow as two inches below the ground and sheathing them in a rubber-like substance, showed early promise in Louisville, Kentucky, where Google Fiber managed to extend service to much of the area in a matter of months. But when buried lines started popping out of the ground a few short months later, nanotrenching proved to create more problems than it solved, and Google Fiber ultimately pulled out of Louisville altogether

Around the same time, Google Fiber had better luck in San Antonio with a similar installation technique, "microtrenching," which involved burying fiber lines three times deeper than nanotrenching. While this installation method helped prevent another setback like Louisville, it did little to mitigate the costs of laying new fiber lines. The expansion efforts were ultimately short-lived, and much of the San Antonio area still remains unserviced by Google Fiber.

Essentially back at square one, Google again scaled back on expanding its wired fiber-optic service and instead focused its efforts on Webpass, a fixed wireless service under the Google Fiber brand. With Webpass, Google uses special radios mounted on the tops of buildings to beam an internet signal over the air.

Google

Google Fiber Webpass is offered in Denver, Chicago, Miami, Nashville, Austin, Seattle, and Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco, California. It has all the perks of traditional Google Fiber service, such as competitively priced gigabit plans, free installation, free equipment and no contracts. The catch is that Webpass is only available in buildings equipped to support the service, so if you don't live in an apartment or condo building suited with the right wiring, Webpass isn't an option.

Understanding that Webpass cannot meet the needs of everyone, especially those in single-family homes, Google has recently resumed its efforts once more to expand and improve its standard Google Fiber service. 

In July last year, Google Fiber introduced Des Moines, Iowa, as the first new market for its fiber-to-the-home service in four years. In its press release, Google Fiber acknowledged choosing West Des Moines because much of the needed fiber infrastructure is already in place, allowing it to use the same cost-effective strategy that worked in its Huntsville expansion. This may be the model Google Fiber uses going forward to break into new markets, but there is no word yet as to which additional locations, if any, may be on its radar for the near future.

Faster and farther

As for further expansion in current markets, Google Fiber recently announced plans to bring service to the Millcreek and South Salt Lake, Utah areas. Customers in the Salt Lake Valley can also look forward to even faster speeds thanks to Google Fiber's new 2 Gbps service, which is also currently available in Atlanta, Austin, Huntsville, Nashville, Orange County, Provo and Raleigh/Durham. The 2-gig plan is one of the best internet deals available, offering download speeds up to 2 Gbps and upload speeds up to 1 Gbps starting at $100 a month with unlimited data, a Wi-Fi 6 router and installation included. 

We're excited to see signs of new life once again from Google Fiber. But even with these new additions, Google Fiber still has a ways to go before disrupting the ISP market to the degree we hoped it would when it announced "fiber is coming" more than a decade ago.