Why Google Fiber and Its High-Speed Clones Are Too Expensive for Your City

If you're not jealous of Austin, which on Tuesday officially became the second lucky city to get access to Google Fiber — the search giant's experimental, super fast, surprisingly cheap fiberoptic Internet infrastructure — you should be, because it's unlikely that your city will ever get the coveted connection service of the future. By mid-next year Austin residents will begin to have Internet access that Google claims runs 100 times faster than the average broadband connection, for "roughly similar" prices to Google's first Fiber test case, Kansas City, a city where Internet bills run a very reasonable $70 per month but which provides a cautionary tale for the expensive realities of Google's all-too-pilot friendly project. 

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So how much longer until the rest of us join the revolution? Well, we might have to wait forever. Google CEO Larry Page has previously mentioned vague expansion plans for Fiber during earnings calls, calling it a "good business" and not just a "hobby." But it's very unlikely that Fiber will see a country wide release. Most importantly, installing fibertoptic cable is expensive — just laying down Fiber in Kansas City cost $84 million for 149,000 homes... and that was before even connecting the cables to the houses. One estimate pegs "nationwide deployment" at $140 billion, which would wipe out even Apple's big pile of cash reserves. Just another 20 million homes would cost $11 billion, according to other research

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Of course, that still leaves hope for certain parts of the country. But Kansas City met certain specifications that other cities might not: "We wanted to find a location where we could build quickly and efficiently," Milo Medin, Google's vice president for Fiber, said back when the K.C. pilot program was announced. "Kansas City has great infrastructure." Specifically, Google means the "business friendly" environment that promised to keep the city officials away from Google, according to Forbes's Elise Ackerman. "They didn't dangle tax breaks, but they did deliver access to public rights of way, expedite the permitting process, offer space in city facilities and provide assistance with marketing and public relations," she writes. Kansas City made certain "development agreements" in order to snag the first Fiber deal, such as agreeing to pay for power at city locations and offering space to house Google equipment at no charge. Google also secured guarantees from the city that it would get quick responses on "mundane but important matters," as Technology Review explains

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Not all cities can or will be as open and willing to this kind of expensive dealmaking as Kansas City or Austin appear to be. The entire state of California, for example, has certain environmental laws that make updating infrastructure difficult, Google's Medin has explained before:

Many fine California city proposals for the Google Fiber project were ultimately passed over in part because of the regulatory complexity here brought about by CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] and other rules. Other states have equivalent processes in place to protect the environment without causing such harm to business processes, and therefore create incentives for new services to be deployed there instead.

In addition, part of that expensive funding comes from taxpayer money — adding political frustrations to technologically friendly promise. And even if your city does manage to fit all these specifications, a neighborhood can only get Fiber up and running if a certain number of residents in a location apply to be part of the pilot program. 

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Google Fiber, of course, is a test for wider applications at new levels of broadband connectivity, and the laboratories for those kinds of tests span the tech world. Indeed, Google is far from the only option for cities looking to jump on the high-speed bandwagon to help industry and get ahead of the curve on America's new technology infrastructure. In fact, AT&T just announced a similar service in Austin itself. Other cities have taken things into their own hands: Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, got a $111 million federal grant to build out their own fiberoptic network. But Chattanooga's service doesn't come at the nice and low $70 per month that Google can offer because it makes money by getting more people to use the Internet — and not just through sign-ups. Instead, Chattanooga's home-built version of Fiber costs a whopping $300 per month, per household. So for those looking for an affordable but still high-flying option, Google provides the best bet. It just probably doesn't provide it anywhere near where you live.