The city of Huntsville, Alabama wanted a company to provide it gigabit fiber internet so badly, it went and built most of the physical infrastructure for the high-speed network itself. Monday, that effort was rewarded when Google announced that Huntsville would become the next Google Fiber city.
In nearly every city offering Google Fiber thus far (with the exception of Provo, Utah), Google has built the fiber network from scratch and has been the sole provider. But in Huntsville, a city of 180,000 with a high concentration of tech companies, Google will be just another customer utilizing the fiber infrastructure for high-speed internet that the city announced in 2014.
The fiber expansion will cost the city of Huntsville $55 to $60 million, but it expects to earn back its investments by leasing the fiber to Google and other providers.
“This is a unique model where Huntsville Utilities builds the fiber network and leases excess capacity to private companies,” Mayor Tommy Battle told Motherboard by email.
Many cities have 'dark fiber’ networks already built: networks of fiber optic cables previously laid by the city that could be used for internet connections but are currently unused or unmaintained.
Most cities with existing fiber infrastructure have agreements with major telecom businesses that prohibit the city from using it to wire homes, giving existing telecom companies the chance to create local monopolies. Cities usually agree to this because telecom companies will agree to provide free or cheap connections to municipal offices in exchange for exclusivity.
Huntsville’s agreement is a signal that this model might be beginning to change. Huntsville is currently served by Comcast, but the city’s dark fiber network was built for the express purpose of providing internet to their residents, and so it doesn’t appear to have signed an exclusivity contract with the company. Local news channel WHNT 19 noted that the agreement “ends years of searching for an internet provider to help the city accomplish Mayor Tommy Battle’s goal of ensuring all citizens have access to gigabit internet.”
Westminster, Maryland pursued a similar model with startup internet service provider Ting, to offer gigabit speeds on a smaller scale.
“This is the first time Google has done it, and it’s a pretty big precedent for this approach,” Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told Motherboard. “It’s certainly the largest city we’ve seen something like this.”
Mitchell, said the Google partnership with Huntsville is “game changing” and marks a turning point from these models.
He said he expects many other cities to follow suit, investing in their own infrastructure to provide an alternative to local monopolies like Comcast or AT&T which have “been known to fight dirty.”
Other companies could also lease fiber from Huntsville to provide internet to its citizens, though it seems unlikely a separate internet service provider would want to go up against Google and existing companies like Comcast there. Although Google is technically losing its monopoly over high-speed internet in this case, Mitchell said the tech giant stands to benefit from expansion even if other companies can provide internet in the city.
“It would be a disadvantage not to have a monopoly if Google wanted a monopoly, but I think fundamentally Google doesn’t want to make a lot of money on offering internet access,” he said. “Google wants all Americans to have high quality internet access so it can sell us ads over it.”
Google said it is too early to say when fiber will go live in Huntsville, but the city said it expected to be rolling out service to customers sometime in 2017.