Alphabet Eyes Wireless Networks As Google Fiber's Rollout Halts

Alphabet's Access subsidiary announced that it's "pausing" the expansion of the fiber-optic internet service commonly known as Google Fiber. Access CEO Craig Barratt also said that he will be stepping down, though he will continue to advise the company at the request of Alphabet CEO Larry Page, and that an unspecified number of Access employees will be laid off as the company reconsiders its strategy for making fast internet available to consumers.

Google Fiber will remain available in the cities where it's already debuted, and Barratt said the company will continue work in the cities where construction on its fiber-optic network has already started. Progress in the following cities will be halted by the changes to Google Fiber's expansion:

  • Dallas, Texas
  • Jacksonville, Fla.
  • Los Angeles, Calif.
  • Oklahoma City, Okla.
  • Phoenix, Ariz.
  • Portland, Ore.
  • San Jose, Calif.
  • Tampa, Fla.

Access is likely making these changes because fiber-optic networks are expensive to set up and maintain. The company will instead look to an alternative that could be cheaper, easier to roll out, and more appealing in certain areas: wireless networks. A filing with the Federal Communications Commission from August 2016 shows that Google wants to test high-speed wireless networks in multiple counties throughout the United States.

The filing is heavily redacted because Google believes disclosure of the "confidential and proprietary information" could "cause significant commercial, economic, and competitive harm." But the filing does reveal that Google wants permission to test Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) tech in up to 24 areas throughout the country for 24 months. The tests would help the company determine the viability of wireless networks for high-speed internet.

It's worth noting that the filing, and other filings made with the FCC, are issued by Google Inc. and Google Fiber Inc. This is likely a holdover from the project's beginnings and the recent corporate shuffle that made Google just another subsidiary of the new Alphabet Inc. Although the filing could be meant for a system totally unrelated to Fiber, chances are good that Alphabet will use these tests to help wean Access off of fiber-optic networks.

That's supported by Access working to develop new technologies. Here's how Barratt explained the reasoning behind the changes in the announcement:

Now, just as any competitive business must, we have to continue not only to grow, but also stay ahead of the curve — pushing the boundaries of technology, business, and policy — to remain a leader in delivering superfast Internet. We have refined our plan going forward to achieve these objectives. It entails us making changes to focus our business and product strategy. Importantly, the plan enhances our focus on new technology and deployment methods to make superfast Internet more abundant than it is today.

These changes could be seen as the end of an era. Despite numerous delays, Fiber was a welcome competitor to the almost-monopolies that offer high-speed internet access in much of the United States. It offered great speeds at affordable prices and even led other ISPs to increase their own internet speeds without hiking up their prices at the same time just so they could compete with Fiber's combination of affordability and performance.

Yet the August filing shows that Alphabet, Access, and Google haven't given up on Fiber's goal. Halting the network's expansion might frustrate people who live in the affected cities, but there is some comfort to be found in knowing that the mission of making better-than-decent internet available to more people remains the same. The technology almost doesn't matter: As long as the country's internet infrastructure is improved, few will complain.

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