Image: Google Fiber
Google just announced that it plans on expanding its high-speed fiber-optic service beyond Kansas City, and into another fast-growing nearby city, Olathe, Kansas, home to some 120,000 people.
"The Olathe City Council approved an agreement to bring Google Fiber to their city," Google Fiber Community Manager Rachel Hack wrote in a blog post confirming the announcement. "Olathe has become one of the fastest-growing cities in Kansas and has attracted an influx of new businesses and residents."
Olathe is also just about 20 miles away from Kansas City, making it a logical destination for the next evolution of Fiber. Tech pundits are enthused. The Verge's Jeff Blangdon says, "while it will only be the third city to get the Google Fiber treatment (the first not named Kansas City), it sets an important precedent: Google is serious about expanding its service." That service will cost $120 when packaged with TV, and $70 a month for internet alone. There's also a slower service Google is temporarily offering for $25 a year.
The most intriguing news was buried at the bottom of the announcement: Hack wrote that "hopefully, this is the first of several announcements that we'll be able to make about bringing Google Fiber to additional cities in the KC metro area; so stay tuned."
Which means that Google has concrete plans to continue to build upon its fiber network. Clearly, the prospect of more cutting edge, fast-as-hell internet is an exciting one. And it means that Google, and, likely, other tech giants are becoming increasingly convinced of the viability of fiber-optics as a business proposition—and it greatly increases the chances that fiber will come to your neighborhood.
"Google doesn't have to answer to the community any more than Time Warner Cable does."
But this junction is also occasion to step back and consider the model by which that fiber optic—and really, the future of broadband—gets delivered.
"In the short term, I think it's good news for the people of Olathe that will have radically improved access to the Internet," Christopher Mitchell, the Director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative, wrote in an email. He expects similar announcements for cities and suburbs like it. Nonetheless, problems remain in how that service will be delivered in the long-term.
"Most Americans have to choose between slow DSL and overpriced but faster cable. We need to do better and Google is a step in that direction," Mitchell says, "but Google doesn't have to answer to the community any more than Time Warner Cable does. This is a problem in the long term." Mitchell advocates for fiber optic networks that are community-owned and managed—like England's B4RN and the Central Illinois Regional Broadband Network. Typically, those networks are built in rural areas or regions where quality internet service is otherwise lacking—but community-based internet supporters like Mitchell think similar models are worth adopting everywhere.
Because while people tend to like Google instinctively—it's got a quirky image, it's innovative, and it allegedly does small amounts of evil—that halo might wear off down the line, especially if its burgeoning internet-service-providing arm begins to act more like Comcast. You know, offering high speed internet access at exorbitant rates while sticking consumers with labyrinthine or non-responsive customer service. There's also the fact of Google's self-interest: expanding access is great, because it helps the company further monetize the data it can collect from users.
“You can’t hook your own server up to Google Fiber,” Isaac Wilder of the Free Network Foundation tells Harpers. The FNF, which Motherboard profiled during its efforts to provide mesh networks to Occupy Wall Street, is now doing the same for the underprivileged in Kansas City. “So if you do want to publish something, the easiest choice is going to be through Google’s own services. This creates a sort of locked-in environment where somebody is using a piece of Google hardware, on a Google network, using Google services. You know every detail of their habits. Every detail of what they’re reading.”
A prototype tower and nodes connected to the Free Network Foundation's FreedomLink at Oak Tower, which appears in the background. Kansas City, Mo., July 2012.
Furthermore, laying Fiber is not necessarily shrinking the digital divide. Since Wilder's proposal to allow multiple low-income families to share a single Google Fiber connection was rejected by the city, he and the FNF have been waging a kind of guerilla war against Google with the newest iteration of their mesh network. With inspiration from guifi.net, a community network organization in Spain, and funding from a local non-profit, Connecting for Good, the FNF are using a microwave dish and a $125 non-fiber connection to provide Internet to some 400 people living in a housing project three miles from their headquarters in downtown Kansas City.
“The one clear rule,” Wilder says of the foundation's philosophy, “is that the Internet should be treated as a commons, the same way that we treat our sidewalks or our air or our water. Everybody’s got a right to use it on the same terms.” In Kansas and elsewhere, it could prove difficult for the community to help its less affluent citizens benefit from fiber if Google's calling the shots from Mountain View.
Nonetheless, Google Fiber is officially a legitimate business venture, not just another ambitious Google experiment glossed in techno-buzz. Widely available, truly high-speed internet finally seems just around the corner. The question is how we'll ultimately get access to it.