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Google Fiber's secret weapon in its gigabit comeback has failed

An experimental process for more cheaply and quickly rolling out speedy fiber internet didn't pan out, forcing Google Fiber to pull out of Louisville.

Jason Hiner/CBS Interactive

Google's trick to more rapidly and cheaply deploy its super-speedy Google Fiber project has hit a wall, complicating the company's broader attempt to get its gigabit service back on track across the nation.

The internet titan had pinned its hopes on an experiment called "shallow trenching," which enabled it to deploy gigabit internet in Louisville in just five months and drastically outpace rival AT&T Fiber. But a Google Fiber spokesperson said problems with the process will force Google Fiber to cease operations in Louisville. Google is informing customers Thursday that their service will end on April 15.

It's a massive setback for Google Fiber, which "paused" operations in October 2016 but rolled out in Louisville and San Antonio in 2017 as part of a quiet Google Fiber 2.0 comeback, using cutting-edge techniques to control costs and outflank traditional telecom companies. The service was supposed to be a speedier, less costly alternative to your standard cable or phone provider, but Google encountered the same problem as everyone else: the insane costs of laying down physical fiber lines.

Locating local internet providers

In the other 10 metropolitan areas where Google Fiber is still operating -- Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Huntsville, Alabama; Kansas City, Missouri; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Orange County, California; Salt Lake City/Provo, Utah; and San Antonio -- it'll continue to put more fiber in the ground and sign up new customers. A Google Fiber spokesperson also told CNET that it'll learn from the failure in Louisville and improve its deployments in other cities.


Google Fiber installers laid fiber using "shallow trenching" in Louisville.

Jason Hiner/CBS Interactive

The Google Fiber team cited the experimental construction methods used in Louisville as the reason behind the failure. That deployment technique, called "nanotrenching," enabled Google Fiber to deploy fiber at greater speed and lower cost.

Locating local internet providers

The construction crews for Google Fiber in Louisville were digging trenches only two inches deep on the edges of roads, laying the fiber cables and then filling in the trench with a rubbery liquid that would solidify when it dried.

Within several months, though, some of the fiber cables started popping out of the trenches and were lying exposed in the streets. In other cities, such as San Antonio, Google Fiber has switched to "microtrenching," which uses a similar technique but goes at least six inches deep. The Google Fiber rollout will proceed in San Antonio.


An example of the "nanotrenching" technique Google Fiber installers used in Louisville.

Jason Hiner/CBS Interactive

It should be noted that AT&T has been using various forms of shallow trenching since 2009 and hasn't seen similar issues. Google Fiber's build quality and customer service also got called into question when a number of Kansas City customers lost service for over a week during a January snowstorm.

The Google Fiber team indicated that it didn't have any plans to continue operations in Louisville, because it would have to rebuild its entire Louisville network from scratch to bring it up to the same standard of service of its other gigabit cities.

In notifying its Louisville customers of the shutdown, Google FIber is also letting them know they won't be billed for the final two months of service. That could be of little consolation to consumers who were thrilled to get the upgrade to an internet connection that features both upload and download speeds that can reach up to 1 gigabit per second -- far faster and more consistent than the cable and DSL connections most users will have to go back to.

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AT&T Fiber operates in some of the same neighborhoods where Google Fiber deployed in Louisville, so it may provide a comparable alternative for some customers. An AT&T spokesperson confirmed that AT&T Fiber will continue to expand its network in Louisville. AT&T also noted that in late 2018 Louisville was one of the first 12 cities where it deployed its 5G network with mobile hotspots, which can rival some of the lower-speed fiber connections.

When Google Fiber goes into a city, it usually spurs competition from other internet providers to increase their connection speeds and provide better customer service. That's been the case in Louisville, where AT&T and Spectrum have stepped up and offered their own forms of gigabit service, though AT&T charges more for its version and Spectrum's service features much lower upload speeds.

With nanotrenching off the table for Google Fiber, it's going to have to play the long game more like a traditional telecom provider. Companies like AT&T take a much slower, more measured approach in rolling out new networks, and AT&T thinks of fiber as an investment with a 100-year return.

Jason Hiner/CBS Interactive

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