Welcome to the Fiberhood

Welcome to the Fiberhood

Lydia Schendel

Google doesn’t power everything we do online or with IP devices– but it powers enough to make you wonder how far Google can push all the envelopes they’ve got in the air. Chances are you use Google to access e-mail, search the web, watch YouTube videos, and store documents in the cloud. And that is just a small sampling of the services they offer for the consumer. Google might even power the very devices you use to access the Internet, like an Android smart phone or tablet, a Chromebook laptop computer, or the Google Chrome web browser. And increasingly, enterprise networks are using Google cloud services and other back-end infrastructure to power corporate or educational databases. Now Google is thinking even bigger picture by providing the Internet service itself, and a few lucky cities are getting the chance to experience life in the fast lane. Does this new technology – along with other Gigabit initiatives coming down the road from other providers–portend changes for our customers? And for our own industries?

What is Google Fiber?

Google Fiber is Google’s project to create a broadband Internet network using fiber-optic communication. Also known as “gigabit Internet,” this type of infrastructure allows for Internet speeds of one gigabit per second for both download and upload. That’s about 100 times faster than the Internet service most Americans have right now.

While the average user will probably be excited about perks like faster YouTube streaming and online gaming, Google Fiber has much bigger implications for the communities it comes to. Schools are able to create a more engaging experience for students and teachers using more advanced technology. Entrepreneurs and businesses are attracted to the opportunity to work more efficiently. Other Internet providers in the area are forced to up their game to compete with Google, which gives residents a wider range of service options. There’s a reason over 1,100 cities applied to be among the first to receive this technology back in 2010. Gigabit Internet has the power to transform communities economically, socially and culturally.

Thursday, November 14th was the final fiberhood deadline for Kansas City, KS and Central Kansas City, MO.

What has Google Fiber Done for Kansas City?

In March 2011, Google selected Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas, to be the first recipients of the service. For $120 a month, subscribers receive gigabit internet, HDTV service with 2 terabytes of DVR storage, and a Nexus 7 tablet to use as a remote control. There’s also a gigabit-Internet-only plan for $70 a month, and for a $300 service fee, a free broadband Internet plan is also available. Over the past 2 years, Google has announced plans to expand the service to 16 more communities in the Kansas City metro area.

To prepare for Google Fiber’s arrival to Kansas City, the two mayors assembled a task force called the Mayors' Bistate Innovations Team (MBIT). The team was charged with developing a strategy for various aspects of the community to take advantage of the high-speed fiber infrastructure. Mike Burke, co-chair of MBIT, said that aside from a few obstacles, such as a slower than anticipated rollout and the absence of a product offering for businesses, the arrival of Google Fiber to Kansas City has afforded a tremendous opportunity.

“The energy that has taken over this whole community is amazing,” Burke said. “It energized our tech community, our startup community, and our entrepreneurs. We always had a lot of talent, but it was a pretty disjointed community without a lot of opportunities to socialize and interact with investors. That has been the most remarkable change in Kansas City.”

A microcosm of this newly invigorated entrepreneurial culture is the Kansas City Startup Village. Small business owners flocked to Hanover Heights, which was the first neighborhood to receive Google Fiber, moved into homes in the area and began working and collaborating on projects. Burke said the most remarkable thing about this movement is that it happened completely organically.

“It has been fascinating to watch, and it has drawn attention from literally all over the world,” Burke said.

Burke said representatives from over 40 countries, as well as visitors from Austin and Provo, Utah, the third Fiber city, have come to Kansas City to “kick the tires” and see what Google Fiber is really all about.

“We recognize that the strength of being a Google Fiber city is increased when you have other Google Fiber cities,” Burke said. “We look at this as an opportunity for collaboration.”

Burke emphasized that the people of Kansas City, not just Google, deserve the credit for the changes that have taken place.

“Google Fiber has been a huge catalyst and a very positive experience for Kansas City,” Burke said. “And Kansas City has come together to have a conversation about how to take this community into the 21st century. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think we’ve had a very good conversation.”

“It’s not about Google. It’s about Kansas City. And the same thing will go for Austin.”

What Will Google Fiber Do for Austin?

On April 9, 2013, Google announced plans to bring Google Fiber to Austin, Texas. Google has to build the fiber-optic infrastructure from the ground up (unlike in Provo, where Google purchased an existing fiber-optic network,) so the city still has a little more waiting to do before getting their hands on Fiber’s blazing speeds. By mid-2014, Google plans to roll out service to the first customers in neighborhoods that express interest, gradually expanding the coverage area over time.

So why was Austin chosen to become a Fiber city? Here’s what Google Fiber has to say on their website.

“Austin is known globally as a mecca for creative and entrepreneurial people, including musicians, artists, tech companies, and the University of Texas and its new medical research hospital to name a few. High-speed ubiquitous connectivity can make an immediate impact on the work of all of these groups.

When we were originally choosing where to bring Fiber in 2010, Austin had one of the most enthusiastic responses. Austin city leaders have worked hard to make this possible, and we’re excited to be here.”

Austinites are equally excited – and for good reason. Aside from the superficial benefits of faster home Internet speeds, Google Fiber has the potential to drastically change the educational, economic and social landscapes of the city.

John Speirs, program coordinator for Austin’s Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs department, said the community’s support was instrumental in Austin being selected as the second Fiber city out of over 1,100 applicants.

“The fact that we were number two speaks to the strength of what Austin brought to the table as far as an interested, tech-savvy community that really sees the benefits that this technology could bring,” Speirs said.
Another factor that helped Austin stand out as a candidate for the service is the fact that its power utility, Austin Energy, is municipally owned. Support and direction from city government will simplify the process of incorporating the necessary equipment into existing infrastructure. Speirs said Google will be installing fiber-optics on all 50,000 poles owned by Austin Energy, and only about 10 percent of those poles will need to be replaced in order to accommodate Fiber.
So how exactly does Austin plan to take advantage of this opportunity? The city’s primary goal for Google Fiber is to expand and improve Internet access for underserved populations, public services and community organizations, schools and businesses.

A unique aspect of the network service agreement that Austin negotiated with Google is the inclusion of the Community Connections program. Google has agreed to provide free gigabit Internet service to City Hall, the Central Library and 100 public or non-profit organizations until April 2023. The application process to get on the list for free Fiber closed at the end of September.

Speirs said the city received over 300 site applications from 157 local organizations, including school districts, the Housing Authority, Parks and Recreation, local universities and colleges (with the exception of the University of Texas, which plans to pursue a separate sharing agreement,) all 23 public library branches and a wide variety of non-profit organizations.

The city has been tasked with choosing which non-profits will receive the free service. Speirs said the city is currently reviewing and scoring the applications based on the population that will be served, the geographic location of the service and the innovative applications proposed by the organization. The list is expected to be finalized in late November 2013.

“The intent behind the Community Connections program is to connect the public with the benefit of gigabit speed and to enhance the quality of their lives,” Speirs said.

Speirs said Google Fiber will allow non-profits and community organizations to provide better services while also cutting down on overhead costs.

“Right now, a lot of organizations in the community are paying hundreds of dollars every month for Internet service,” Speirs said. “Over the 10 years of the free connection, based on Kansas City’s pricing model, we’re looking at about a $30,000 savings per organization that receives the connection. For a non-profit, that’s a tremendous savings. It’s going to really help them put more funds towards front-line programming.”

Speirs said the biggest challenge that Google and Austin will face in rolling out Google Fiber is making sure the technology is actually touching the communities that need it most. Google will decide which neighborhoods to “light up” with Fiber based on the level of interest expressed by residents during the Fiberhood Rally that will take place sometime next year. If a particular neighborhood doesn’t meet the threshold, they might not receive the service.

Speirs said the city is looking to Kansas City’s experience for ideas about how to make sure underserved communities are given the opportunity to access the technology. Austin will work with neighborhood organizations as well as with Google itself to educate and energize citizens in these areas about the benefits of gigabit Internet.

“Google will need to be out there on the front lines, sending individuals door to door helping residents understand the value of Google Fiber and convincing them to sign up to show that they’re interested in receiving the connection,” Speirs said. “We need to make sure that those neighborhoods that could potentially be left behind are not.”

Austin Independent School District, the largest school district in the region and the fifth largest in Texas, is one of the organizations vying for a spot on the list. AISD applied for all 13 of its high schools and all 18 of its middle schools to receive the service. AISD says they selected these schools based on their need for increased connectivity, the percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price meals and the potential to close the "digital divide." AISD says they have been assured that at least some of their schools will get Google Fiber, but they do not know how many, or which schools.

Vincent Torres, president of the district’s Board of Trustees, said Google Fiber is going to enhance students’ ability to learn modern skills using online tools and resources. Faster Internet speeds will create a more enjoyable and productive educational experience.

“The more students that get on the current system, the slower it responds,” Torres said. “You don’t want students sitting there during instruction time waiting for the system to respond to their inquiry. This is going to allow us to eliminate that problem much faster and easier than if we were trying to increase the speed ourselves. More and more of the technology that we’re using in the classroom is online-based technology, and it will allow our students to become familiar with new tools and software and the ability to access resources the internet in ways that some of their peers are able to do.”

Torres said Google Fiber will also create more opportunities for the district to leverage videoconferencing and other distance learning tools to reach out to students wherever they are. Through a program called the Virtual School Network, AISD offers a number of online high school classes over the Internet. Torres said Google Fiber will allow the district to add more functionality to this offering.

“As we move forward, we hope to improve access for our students,” Torres said. “If some of our students are not able to attend an event, we want to be able to offer a ‘digital cam’ kind of environment. Any time you use that type of technology, it’s highly megabit-intensive, so the higher speed of transfer makes these types of opportunities much more realistic and enjoyable.”

Google Fiber is also good news for Austin’s business sector. Speirs said he anticipates a boost to the entrepreneurial spirit that is already alive and well in Austin, similar to the boom experienced in Kansas City. Austin’s image as a college town, state capital, and self proclaimed “weird” city make it an attractive place to start a business, and adding Google Fiber will only increase the appeal.

“There are a lot of individuals that come here for the opportunity to work and develop a business,” Speirs said. “I think we’re going to see an increase in the number of startups, especially in the number of businesses started out of the home. In addition, existing businesses will be able to improve their products and services, and public entities will be able to improve quality of life within their communities. It will cross all of the platforms that we have within the community.”

Google Fiber is also working to hire a small team in Austin, and plans to provide a special set of service options for small businesses.

What Will Google Fiber Do for the AV Industry?

It’s clear that Google Fiber will have an impact on its host cities, but what does it mean for the AV industry at large?

Jonathan Brawn, principal of Brawn Consulting, an audiovisual consulting, educational development and marketing firm, said videoconferencing, collaboration and data sharing technologies have the most to gain from the spread of gigabit internet services.

“Adding advanced bandwidth in that capacity will open up new avenues of streaming content and always-on interactivity across multiple sites,” Brawn said. “This will provide for better experiences in videoconferencing, making that truly practical (at least when speeds of that nature become more common,) as well as opening up new capabilities in running equipment over IP, like the PC over IP revolution happening on corporate networks. We can begin to link systems together into larger groups. More things can move into the cloud, because they can be reached nearly instantaneously.”

As powerful as this technology is, it will be a while before the industry can harness its full potential. Besides the obvious requirement that more locations around the world gain access to fiber infrastructure in order to create a fully functional global network, manufacturers will have to begin designing their products to accommodate gigabit speeds. Brawn said a shift in attitudes within the industry will have to take place in order to make that idea a reality.

“There will need to be a much more in-depth understanding of IT networking and techniques, and a willingness to embrace new concepts of how traditional technologies can work,” Brawn said.

Dan Smith, director of U.S. Sales for LG Electronics’ Commercial Display Division, shares this sentiment, calling for a modernized, more holistic definition of a complete AV solution.

“When people think of AV, or digital signage, or any use of technology that’s network-driven, they still tend to think of the obvious things – the screens, or the computers and media players,” Smith said. “But increasingly, it’s not just about the screens, or the devices at the consumption end. An AV ecosystem is made up of all three of the necessary parts: the HD (or 4K) panels, the media players and the needed bandwidth.”

In keeping with this approach, Smith said his company is taking steps to prepare their products to take advantage of gigabit speeds once they become more widely available.

“At LG, we already are building Media Players that have gigabit Ethernet built in,” Smith said. “When broad-based gigabit Ethernet like what Google Fiber is doing becomes more available, it will open up many possibilities for more interactive applications, both enterprise-wide, and nationally and internationally.”

Time will tell exactly what Google Fiber means for Austin, the AV industry and the rest of the world. Kansas City’s experience is certainly promising, but every city is unique, and Austin will surely face its own unique set of challenges in getting the system up and running. Amidst the uncertainty that this opportunity brings, we know one thing for sure. The world will be watching Austin in 2014, hoping for a glimpse into a bright future of faster Internet, tech-savvy students, empowered entrepreneurs and connected communities.

We’ll be reporting on more Gigabit Ethernet developments– and what they might mean for the AV community– in the companion piece to this article that will appear in the December 2013 print issue of Digital Signage magazine.

Lydia Schendel is completing her undergraduate degree in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at lydiaschendel@gmail.com.