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Google Fiber team works to bring ultra-fast Internet to Charlotte

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/21/09/03/Diu7V.Em.138.jpg|316
    Keith Myers - The Kansas City Star
    Installers for Google Fiber working on March 19, 2013, in the Piper area of northwest Kansas City, Kan.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/21/20/42/1pO2SG.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Ariana Lindquist - BLOOMBERG
    US Internet Corp. cabling technicians Matt Louis, left, and Matthew Ciapha, center, pull fiber-optic Internet cable from underground tubing during installation in Minneapolis last year.

The city’s plan for bringing an ultra-fast Internet network to Charlotte is in – and now the Google Fiber team is deciding whether it will work.

In May, city leaders set forth a plan for bringing a Google Fiber network to Charlotte, with 28 small huts encircling the city, thousands of miles of cable running above and beneath the streets and ultra-fast Internet powering neighborhoods and homes.

Since then, teams of Google Fiber workers have been visiting the city “pretty regularly,” company spokeswoman Jenna Wandres said. One sat down with city planners at the end of last month to discuss permitting and approval processes, while others have been surveying areas and counting utility poles.

“We’ve taken the past few months to look over (the plan) and go back and forth with the city,” Wandres said. “We’re mapping out what it would look like.”

But for the city, after three months spent preparing the plan and answering Google’s questions, what’s left – for now – is a waiting game.

“Google has been moving very quickly, so I don’t know exactly when the clock will start,” said Phil Reiger, assistant director for the city’s Department of Transportation and the project leader. “They’re evaluating us just like any other city ... We don’t know any more than that.”

The city’s plan details how the company could run fiber cables through Charlotte to bring a data network touting Internet 100 times faster than average broadband speeds. Cables would branch out from “fiber huts,” 12-foot by 27-foot buildings that would sit, hidden, on city-owned land – tucked beneath water towers or beside landfills.

Google would pay about $2,000 for each site, said Jeffrey Stovall, the city’s chief information officer.

Each could serve about 20,000 homes in a “fiber-hood,” or division of the Charlotte area. They’d connect to houses that asked for it, but only in areas with high enough demand.

Reiger said the June meeting with Google went well, and the company hadn’t asked anything the city felt was “unmanageable.”

He said the Google team is working through the city’s plan to gauge its feasibility: How long will this take to build? How much will it cost?

“What Google is proposing is a pretty major infrastructure investment,” Reiger said. “Disruption is inevitable.”

Significant construction

Current broadband networks offer speeds of about 10 to 20 megabits per second. Google Fiber promises 1,000 megabits – or 1 gigabit – per second.

The technology allows for no-waiting downloads and uploads of movies or other big data files.

Wandres said Google will announce by the end of the year whether it’s going to build the fiber network in Charlotte. Until then, the company’s teams are doing things such as checking to see where the cables will hang above the streets from existing utility poles and where they’ll have to be buried.

Stovall said no roads will be completely torn up for cable installation, but there may be instances where construction workers will have to cut across them. That’s where much of the preparation is needed: The city has control over the roads, so companies need a set of approvals and permits if they want to build in those areas.

Google’s working through that process to make sure their plans are approved. Once construction were to begin, it would be up to the city’s Department of Transportation to control traffic and minimize disruption.

“It’s a big construction project, and we want to do it in the most efficient way possible,” Wandres said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to plan it well.”

It’s not yet clear where the most significant construction will be, officials said. Until Google’s feasibility study is completed and preliminary designs are made, the city won’t know which fiber hut locations will be used, where cables will sit or whether they’ll primarily be above or below ground, Reiger said.

Gathering support

As Google deliberates, some Charlotteans are working to inform city residents about the potential new broadband infrastructure. Alan Fitzpatrick, co-founder of the volunteer group Charlotte Hearts Google, said his organization’s goal is three-fold: to gather support for a fiber network, to prepare people for the construction and to show them what the city stands to gain from it.

“It should mean … more businesses that are going to start around that infrastructure that just doesn’t exist today,” Fitzpatrick said.

He said Charlotte Hearts Google is holding a talk at UNC Charlotte on Thursday highlighting some of the benefits the network could bring. Among other things, the high-speed network would attract talented entrepreneurs and innovators, particularly in the tech industry, he said.

“But the day to start thinking about that is not when it’s all deployed,” he said. “The day to start thinking about it is now.”

Google told city officials that construction would take about two years, Reiger said.

“The time frame is shorter than any other utility investment that we’ve seen,” he said, adding that AT&T’s infrastructure, in contrast, has been built up over a century.

“Nationally, it’s not unprecedented. But in Charlotte, we’ve never seen one like this yet.”

Google first built a fiber network in Kansas City, has bought an existing one in Provo, Utah, and is planning one in Austin, Texas. But those haven’t come without problems: In Kansas City, some residents raised concern over decades-old trees that were cut down and gas leaks inadvertently caused by construction crews, according to news accounts.

Besides Charlotte, Google is considering expanding into 33 cities in eight metro areas: Portland, Ore.; San Jose, Calif.; Salt Lake City; Phoenix; San Antonio, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; Atlanta; and the Raleigh-Durham area.

Igniting industry competition

Google’s interest in Charlotte, which was announced in February, spurred similar offers from other providers.

AT&T said it’s also considering rolling out ultra-high-speed Internet in the Charlotte metropolitan area, which includes Gastonia and Huntersville. Company spokesman Josh Gelinas said in an email that AT&T has had “productive discussions” with the city about moving forward with its plans, but no final decisions have been made.

Fitzpatrick said even the threat of Google Fiber coming to Charlotte has caused AT&T and other companies to react, creating a more competitive industry that should benefit consumers. Plus, he said, Google’s interest is generally bringing more positive, nationwide attention to the city.

“When we get on the list for Google Fiber, people take notice,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, there’s something about Charlotte. There’s something going on there.’ 

Cassella: 704-358-5384; Twitter: @mmcassella
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