Google Pursues Both Fiber and Wireless Broadband Ambitions

Google Fiber this week began reaching its tentacles into North Carolina’s Research Triangle, a move that seems to contradict the gloom-and-doom rumors of layoffs and low consumer interest.

Coming soon to the Triangle and starting to connect homes and businesses in Morrisville:

— Google Fiber (@googlefiber) September 13, 2016

The Triangle is Google Fiber’s eighth incursion. It’s already available in Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; Provo, Utah; and Salt Lake City.

The North Carolina activity may alleviate some of the doubts over Google Fiber’s direction, which mushroomed several months ago, when the company acquired Webpass.

Experimenting With Wireless

Google executives last month filed an Experimental Radio Service License that would allow the company to offer wireless high-speed service in up to 24 U.S. cities, including a number of California cities and towns: Atwater, Mountain View, Palo Alto, San Bruno, San Francisco and San Jose. In addition, they are seeking permission to test wireless in Boulder, Colorado; Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri; Omaha, Nebraska; Raleigh, North Carolina; Provo, Utah; and Reston, Virginia.

The few portions of the application that have not been redacted include detailed explanations of Google’s plans to conduct radio experiments in support of Citizens Broadband Radio Service technologies, using experimental transmitters. The authorization would last up to 24 months, according to the filing.

“The overarching concern regarding the granting of an experimental license is whether it will interfere with the operation of authorized devices and services,” explained FCC spokesperson Mark Wigfield.

“Therefore, an experimental license will be coordinated with those responsible for all potentially affected stakeholders,” he told the E-Commerce Times, such as other bureaus within the FCC.

“In this coordination process, an experimental license can be accepted as is, be modified to prevent interference, or be rejected,” Wigfield noted. “If approved, an experimental licensee must accept any interference from other parties, and must immediately stop operations if a complaint of interference is made.”

Shifting Focus

Google Fiber acquired Webpass in a bid to accelerate its buildout of ultra-high speed broadband access, after struggling for years to gain access to local markets dominated by rival broadband providers like AT&T, Comcast and others.

Webpass provides high-speed service to thousands of customers in the San Francisco Bay area, Chicago, Boston, San Diego, Miami and some surrounding areas, with speeds up to 1000 Mbps. The announcement of the acquisition came after months of controversy surrounding Goodle’s attempts to access telephone poles in the Bay area, beyond its existing service at Stanford University.

The shift toward wireless broadband makes sense, given the inherent difficulty of breaking through incumbent dominance to gain access to the infrastructure required for competitive broadband service in metropolitan areas, observed broadband analyst Craig Settles.

“Google’s decision to put chips in the wireless game seems to have taken some folks in the industry by surprise — but why? Those of us involved in municipal broadband since the Philadelphia wireless days know that wireless is cheaper and faster to deploy, especially in urban areas,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Google has long said that ease of deployment — essentially the ability to access telephone poles — was a key driver in the deployment of Google Fiber, Settles noted. What the industry has been waiting for is the innovation necessary to allow gigabyte-level speeds for fixed wireless service.

Despite the promise of wireless broadband, it’s unlikely to make a major dent in solving the rural access problem, according to Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

“Google acquired Webpass, which uses both wireless and fiber, to connect buildings,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “I don’t know that this is a good solution for single-family homes.”

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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