Jamie McGee Nashville Tennessean
Published 10:00 p.m. UTC Aug 27, 2018
When Taylor Firestone shopped for homes in Edgehill, imminent Google Fiber access was among the perks his landlord mentioned.
But Firestone, who moved to Edgehill in July, still does not have access to Google Fiber, despite the company’s announcement last year that Google Fiber had expanded to the neighborhood. Instead of turning to AT&T and Comcast, Firestone says he is holding out for Google Fiber and relying on his phone service’s hotspot for internet connection, at least for a few months. He prefers Google’s prices for gigabit speeds to AT&T’s and said he’s been stood up by Comcast installation teams too many times in other cities to return as a customer.
“I am just waiting,” Firestone said.
Residents across the city have been waiting for the highly anticipated Google Fiber internet service since Google announced its expansion to Nashville three and a half years ago. While parts of several neighborhoods and apartment buildings have access to Google Fiber, many Nashvillians continue to renew contracts with existing providers they pledged to drop when the city rolled out its red carpet to Google. The soft, grey Google Fiber T-shirts with a dotted map of Tennessee are still seen around town, a sign of residents’ early interest, but many wearing them are not yet connected and have few insights on when and if their homes will be capable.
“It’s still complicated,” Nashville Google Fiber Manager Martha Ivester said. “Building this fiber optic network throughout the whole city is a long process, and we never expected it wouldn’t be a long process. Obviously, we have had our challenges here.”
Since it began installation in 2016, Google Fiber has connected 52 Nashville apartment buildings and single-family homes in parts of Charlotte Park, Edgehill, Sylvan Heights, Sylvan Park, East Nashville, Burton Hills and most recently, North Nashville. The company declined to offer specific adoption numbers.
Google Fiber announced in October 2017 that it also was expanding to Midtown, Acklen Park and Music Row neighborhoods, but has since retracted. Those areas were taking longer than expected and the company wanted to “set customer expectations appropriately,” Ivester said.
Google officials, city leaders, business owners, remote workers and movie watchers celebrated Nashville’s selection as a possible Google Fiber city in 2014 and again in 2015, when the expansion was made official. Nonprofit leaders praised the company’s focus on bridging the digital divide and the potential Google’s efforts had for Nashville.
“Google Fiber’s presence here will enhance the work done.. by making collaboration, the exchange of good ideas, faster and easier,” said then-Mayor Karl Dean, welcoming Google Fiber at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center in 2015. “This is the city where people make things happen, and once Google Fiber is up and running they’ll be able to do even more.”
Meanwhile, AT&T and Comcast launched their own gigabit networks across Nashville after Google Fiber announced the company was exploring Nashville in February 2014. AT&T now offers gigabit speeds to more than 250,000 homes and small businesses and more than 500 multifamily family buildings. Comcast offers gigabit speeds through fiber or modem technology across Middle Tennessee, according to the company.
Google announced in 2016 that it was pausing fiber expansion in several cities and shifting its focus to wireless high-speed internet, but the company remained firm in its commitment to Nashville.
Earlier this week, the Tennessee Public Utilities Board granted Google Fiber a two-year extension on meeting deployment requirements. The company had to connect 30 percent of homes in its proposed coverage area within three and a half years of its franchise application, but in July, Google Fiber officials told the board that the company would not be able to meet those requirements.
Google Fiber’s Davidson County coverage area at one point included satellite cities Forest Hills, Oak Hill, Belle Meade and Berry Hill, but in 2017, the company asked for those to be removed because of construction delays. Google Fiber said it planned to add those areas back in the future.
“Given our deployment challenges, it made it very difficult to meet,” Ivester said of the franchise agreement. “We just asked for an extension in timing, given that it has taken us a little longer.”
One Touch Make Ready
The deployment challenges Ivester refers to stem from a contentious legal battle over how internet and cable companies are allowed to add new lines to utility poles.
In Middle Tennessee, where a sheet of limestone lays beneath much of the surface, Google looked to the utility poles to roll out its network. But under Metro law, the company had to wait on existing providers to make room on utility poles before Google could add a new cable. The process could take several months for each existing provider to prepare a pole, a painstaking time frame for a company seeking to deploy a massive fiber network and for a city eager for greater internet competition.
Instead, Google proposed an alternative ”One Touch Make Ready” process that would allow independent contractors to move all existing cables in one session, accelerating the installation process and reducing disruption to streets. It was met with staunch opposition from Comcast and AT&T, which owns 20 percent of Nashville poles. Nashville Electric Service owns the remaining 80 percent.
Comcast and AT&T said the new proposed policy would violate contracts with existing workers and could pose safety issues. It could also lead to more traffic hazards if the work is done improperly.
After weeks of contentious meetings debating whether to approve One Touch Make ready, Metro Council sided with Google Fiber. The council vote quickly prompted lawsuits from AT&T and Comcast that claimed Metro lacked the authority to regulate utility poles. After the city spent roughly $140,000 on legal fees to argue the case, a federal judge in November sided with AT&T and Comcast, ruling that only the Federal Communications Commission could regulate poles owned by AT&T. A separate judge ruled in January that the city did not have the authority to allow One Touch Make Ready on poles owned by Nashville Electric Service.
“I think no one would have expected it would have been as hard to get on poles as it was,” Ivester said. “There was certainly a lot of push back on that and so I think that that would have been a speedier process.”
The FCC issued an order in August allowing One Touch Make Ready, but the ruling does not apply to NES poles in Nashville, according to the FCC. It is up to NES to determine if it will allow One Touch Make Ready in Nashville and the municipally-owned power provider indicated that it will stick with the status quo process of moving each line separately, without elaborating on its reasons for doing so.
“NES is committed to the efficient and effective deployment of broadband for our customers,” Vaughan Charles, NES engineering manager, said in an emailed statement. “NES has our own pole attachment process, and we are not required to follow the OTMR policy regulated by the FCC.”
AT&T has since shifted its tone on One Touch Make Ready. In 2016 council hearings, the company pointed to union contracts and safety issues in their opposition and their lawsuit focused on jurisdiction. More recently, Joan Marsh, who leads AT&T regulatory department, said the FCC’s order seeks to balance the needs for a level playing field, fast deployment and safety.
“The order promotes fair competition by placing all providers on a path to pole attachment rate parity and incorporates many improvements to the new one-touch-make-ready pole attachment process,” Marsh said in an emailed statement.
Facing utility pole headwinds, Google Fiber turned to underground installation through a technique they describe as shallow trenching. The company has pulled more than 24,000 permits to lay the fiber through shallow trenching, an installation strategy that has become their leading choice for deployment.
The fiber-laying process has also been accompanied by construction issues,which Google cautioned residents about ahead of installation. According to WSMV, citing Metro Public Works, Google Fiber lines have been torn up in at least six locations during road repaving projects. The city has mandated that the lines are placed at least four inches deep.
“We work very closely with Metro and Public Works because we, obviously, want to avoid any disruptions in service,” Ivester said. “There are accidents that happen… In most cases we have great dialogue and we are able to get ahead of it.”
While Google Fiber has not met the initial terms of its franchise agreement for overall deployment, it has fulfilled the requirements that 25 percent of homes offered connection belong to low-income residents.
Metropolitan Development Housing Agency’s Edgehill Homes and J. Henry Hale Apartments in North Nashville have access to free Google Fiber internet through MDHA’s ConnectHome program. Google Fiber does not share adoption rates but said the response has been positive.
“The reception has been amazing,” Daynise Joseph, Google Fiber’s community impact manager, said. “It makes a difference in someone’s budget not having to pay for internet.”
Comcast has also joined the ConnectHome initiative and offers $10 monthly service through its Internet Essentials program.
Sticking with Nashville
Google Fiber is still committed to Nashville, Ivester said, and she asked residents for their patience. In recent weeks, Google Fiber added North Nashville and teams are knocking on residents’ doors to sign up residents.
“We see new customers coming on everyday,” she said. “There is the door-to-door team that is out there everyday. We are happy to see those numbers continue to go up.”
Ivester emphasizes the value the company offers to consumers when they are able to connect. The company does not do hidden fees, data caps or long-term contracts, she said.
“It is just better customer service and better customer experience overall,” she said.
Ivester, who announced earlier this month she’s moving to Denmark, has also been waiting for Google Fiber connection. She and her family, living in West Nashville, also are eager for the gigabit speed internet she and her colleagues have championed since 2015. Paying a bill to a competing internet provider each month is not a good feeling, she said.
“We have a couple of employees who have Google Fiber,” Ivester said. “We are all quite jealous of them.”
Reach Jamie McGee at 615-259-8071 and on Twitter @JamieMcGee_.
Google Fiber plans
Fiber 100: $50 a month, internet speeds up to 100 megabits per second
Fiber 1000: $70 a month, internet speeds up to 1,000 megabits per second, downloads and uploads
Fiber 100 + TV: $140 a month, internet speeds up to 100 megabits per second, 155+ channels, can add premium channels (HBO, Showtime) for additional cost
Fiber 1000 + TV: $160 a month, internet speeds up to 1,000 megabits per second, 155+ channels, can add premium channels (HBO, Showtime) for additional cost
Internet: $50 a month, then $60 after a year, plus $99 for installation. Unlimited data costs $30 a month and customers pay a prorated $180 fee to cancel a contract. 10 to 100 megabits per second.
Direct TV + Internet: $75 a month, then $121 after a year. Customers pay a $35 activation fee and $30 a month for unlimited data. 155 channels. Speeds vary. 24 month contract required.
Internet 1000: $90 a month. Pricing increases to $100 after a year. Prices drop to $80, $90 when bundled with another service. Up to 960 megabits per second for downloads. Customers pay a prorated $180 fee to cancel a contract
Performance Starter: $20 a month, increases to $50 after two-year promotion. Up to 25 megabits per second
Blast!: $45 a month, increases to $80 a month after two-year promotion. 150 megabits per second.
DOCSIS mode: $70 a month, increased to $140 after two-year promotion. 940 megabits per second for downloads, 35 megabits per second for upload
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