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Google Unveils Project Fi Wireless Service: $20/Mo Voice/Text + $10/GB Data Plan That Credits Back Unused Data

google fiGoogle today unveiled their new wireless service, dubbed Project Fi, the first wireless carrier that combines the coverage of two competing cellular providers — Sprint and T-Mobile — to deliver affordable wireless service and a data plan that rebates back any unused portion of your monthly allowance. There are no term contracts, early termination fees, or overlimit penalty charges.

Google’s calling plan starts with Fi Basics for $20 per month. This includes:

  • Unlimited domestic talk and text;
  • Unlimited international texts;
  • Low-cost international calls;
  • Wi-Fi tethering;
  • Coverage in 120+ countries (Unlimited international texts are included in the plan, Cellular calls cost 20c per minute. If calling over Wi-Fi, per-minute costs vary based on which country you’re calling and you’re charged only for outbound calls.)

There is no unlimited data plan, presumably because neither T-Mobile or Sprint was willing to allow Google to offer one. Google tries to turn that into a plus by telling customers they should only pay for the data they actually use. The 2G/3G/4G data plan is $10/GB, sold in 1GB increments up to 10GB. Whatever data you do not use is converted into a cash amount credited to the following month’s bill. Instead of rolling over data, you roll over dollars. If you exceed your allowance, there are no penalty overlimit fees. Instead, you are charged $10 for an additional gigabyte of usage, with the same privilege of getting a cash credit applied to your next bill for any data you didn’t use.

Google assumes you will spend most of your time connected to Wi-Fi, where it offers free Wi-Fi calling and texting. If you lose your Wi-Fi connection, the phone will connect to either Sprint or T-Mobile’s network without losing a call in-progress. Another unique aspect of the service is that your mobile phone number lives in the cloud, so you can talk and text with your number on just about any phone, tablet or laptop using Google Hangouts.

The Nexus 6 is a real handful. It's also the only phone that will currently work on Google Fi.

The Nexus 6 is a real handful. It’s also the only phone that will work on Google Fi.

Google Project Fi relies on Sprint and T-Mobile’s combined networks to deliver coverage, trying to satisfy customers seeking Verizon or AT&T-like coverage. Google’s service seamlessly chooses Wi-Fi first, followed by Sprint or T-Mobile depending on which offers the best 4G signal at your location.

Although the service has been anticipated for some time, there are some caveats to consider before rushing to sign up.

First, you cannot sign-up immediately, you can only request an invitation. As with many other new Google projects, invitation-only service means it could be days, weeks, or even a month before you can sign-up.

Second, a view of Google’s coverage map shows Project Fi has substantially reduced dead spots, but has not eliminated them. Project Fi would likely appeal to Sprint or T-Mobile customers now frustrated by their suburban coverage. Chances are good that between the two carriers, one will deliver a robust signal even if the other does not. But rural areas have always been bypassed by both carriers and this makes Project Fi a bad choice if Sprint and T-Mobile are not good options where you live or work.

For example, much of eastern Kentucky, virtually the entire state of West Virginia, and western Virginia offer little to no 3G/4G coverage. Google Fi only promises 2G coverage in these areas, through a roaming agreement T-Mobile or Sprint has with a larger carrier.

Third, unless you already own a Nexus 6, you will be spending at least $650 to buy a new smartphone. Google will initially only support the Nexus 6 for Project Fi, because it is the only phone capable of switching between Google’s wireless partners. It comes in your choice of colors, if your choice is “Midnight Blue.” The smartphone offers two storage sizes—32GB ($649) and 64GB ($699). You can buy the Nexus 6 up front or finance your phone at 0% interest or fees for 24 months at $27.04/month for the 32GB option or $29.12/month for the 64GB option. A credit check is required for the financing option.

Fourth, there are no family plan options. Each phone is assigned to its own account. If you intend to switch your family of four, you will be dealing with four individual accounts (and a whopping $2,600 to acquire four Nexus 6 phones). Because of the invitation-only approach now in effect, it may take some time to get all of your family members up and running.

Finally, Google intends that its mobile service effectively sells itself. That means they are not offering promotions to sign up and will not pay your existing carrier to cover any early termination fees. You can port your current landline or mobile telephone number to the service. Google does not disclose any fees for doing so.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Google Project Fi 4-22-15.mp4

Google produced this introductory video about its new wireless service: Google Project Fi. (1:56)

Google Fiber Headed to Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Nashville; Avoids Verizon FiOS Country

atlanta fiberGoogle has announced it will bring its fiber broadband service to four new cities — Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Raleigh-Durham, N.C. and Nashville, Tenn., according to a report on Google’s Fiber blog.

In a familiar pattern, Google recently sent invitations to local news organizations in those four cities to attend events this week, without identifying the subject.

As with earlier similar events, the topic was the local launch of Google Fiber.

The cities were all on Google’s 2014 list for possible expansion. Those left out (for now) include Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., and San Jose, Calif. Google recently told city officials in those communities it was still contemplating projects, but remain undecided for now.

After the announcements this week, it will take at least one year before Google is ready to light up the first “fiberhoods” in the cities, usually selected based on customer signups.

Google will challenge Comcast and AT&T in Georgia, Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink in North Carolina, and Comcast and AT&T in Nashville. In Atlanta, the fiber build will not only include Atlanta, but also Avondale Estates, Brookhaven, College Park, Decatur, East Point, Hapeville, Sandy Springs and Smyrna.

expansion

Google will offer unlimited gigabit broadband service for an expected $70 a month. AT&T limits U-verse customers to 250GB in Georgia and Tennessee, and Comcast has subjected both Atlanta and Nashville to its compulsory usage cap experiments, setting a monthly usage allowance at 300GB.

Time Warner Cable does not limit broadband customers in North Carolina, but the Republican-dominated state government is also hostile to community-owned broadband, making it unlikely either Raleigh-Durham or Charlotte will see public broadband competition anytime soon.

Fiber-is-comingGoogle officials have also been reportedly sensitive to local government red tape and regulation. In Portland, the Journal reports Google has put any fiber expansion on hold there because Oregon tax-assessment rules would value Google’s property based on the value of their intangible assets, such as brand. That would cause Google’s property taxes in Oregon to soar. Until the Oregon state legislature makes it clear such rules would not apply to Google Fiber, there will be no Google Fiber in Portland.

Google has also once again shown its reluctance to consider any community or region where Verizon FiOS now provides fiber optic service. The entire northeastern United States, largely dominated by Verizon, has been “no-go” territory for Google, with no communities making it to their list for possible future expansion.

Among the collateral damage are Verizon-less communities in northern New England served by FairPoint Communications and Comcast and portions of western New York served by Frontier Communications where Time Warner Cable has overwhelming dominance with 700,000 subscribers out of 875,000 total households in the Buffalo and Rochester markets.

Wall Street continues to grumble about the Google Fiber experiment, concerned about the high cost of fiber infrastructure and the potential it will create profit-killing price wars that will cut prices for consumers but cost every competitor revenue.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSOC Charlotte Mayor Google Fiber is coming to Charlotte 1-27-15.flv

Charlotte city manager Ron Carlee spoke exclusively to WSOC-TV’s Jenna Deery about how Charlotte won Google over to bring its fiber service to the community. Having a close working relationship between city infrastructure agencies and Google was essential, as was cutting red tape and bureaucracy. (2:10)

Google, Cablevision Challenge Traditional Cell Phone Plans, Wireless Usage Caps With Cheap Alternatives

freewheelLuxurious wireless industry profits of up to 50 percent earned from selling some of the world’s most expensive cellular services may soon be a thing of the past as Google and Cablevision prepare to disrupt the market with cheap competition.

With more than 80 percent of all wireless data traffic now moving over Wi-Fi, prices for wireless data services should be in decline, but the reverse has been true. AT&T and Verizon Wireless have banked future profits by dumping unlimited data plans and monetizing wireless usage, predicting a dependable spike in revenue from growing data consumption. Instead of charging customers a flat $30 for unlimited data, carriers like Verizon have switched to plans with voice, texting, and just 1GB of wireless usage at around $60 a month, with each additional gigabyte priced at $15 a month.

With the majority of cell phone customers in the U.S. signed up with AT&T or Verizon’s nearly identical plans, their revenue has soared. Sprint and T-Mobile have modestly challenged the two industry leaders offering cheaper plans, some with unlimited data, but their smaller cellular networks and more limited coverage areas have left many customers wary about switching.

Google intends to remind Americans that the majority of data usage occurs over Wi-Fi networks that don’t require an expensive data plan or enormous 4G network. The search engine giant will launch its own wireless service that depends on Wi-Fi at home and work and combines the networks of Sprint and T-Mobile while on the go, switching automatically to the provider with the best signal and performance.

googleCablevision’s offer, in contrast, will rely entirely on Wi-Fi to power its mobile calling, texting, and data services. Dubbed “Freewheel,” non-Cablevision customers can sign up starting in February for $29.95 a month. Current Cablevision broadband customers get a price break — $9.95 a month.

Cablevision’s dense service area in parts of New York City, Long Island, northern New Jersey and Connecticut offers ample access to Wi-Fi. Cablevision chief operating officer Kristin Dolan said its new service would work best in Wi-Fi dense areas such as college campuses, business districts, and multi-dwelling units.

New York City is working towards its own ubiquitous Wi-Fi network, which could theoretically blanket the city with enough hotspots to make Cablevision’s service area seamless. But the biggest deterrent to dumping your current cell phone provider is likely to be available coverage areas. Google’s answer to that problem is combining the networks of both Sprint and T-Mobile, offering customers access to the best-performing carrier in any particular area. While that isn’t likely to solve coverage issues in states like West Virginia and the Mountain West, where only AT&T and Verizon Wireless offer serious coverage, it will likely be sustainable in large and medium-sized cities where at least one of the two smaller carriers has a solid network of cell towers.

Comparing the Wireless Alternative Providers

  • Google Wireless will offer seamless access to Wi-Fi, Sprint and T-Mobile voice, SMS, and mobile data at an undetermined price. Likely to arrive by the summer of 2015;
  • Cablevision Freewheel depends entirely on Wi-Fi to power unlimited voice, SMS, and data. Launches in February for $29.95/mo ($9.95/mo for Cablevision broadband customers);
  • FreedomPop Wi-Fi ($5/mo) offers an Android app-based “key” to open unlimited Wi-Fi access to 10 million AT&T, Google, and cable industry hotspots nationwide for calling, texting, and mobile data;
  • Republic Wireless developed its own protocol to properly hand off phone calls between different networks without dropping it. Calling plans range from $5-40 a month. Less expensive plans are Wi-Fi only, pricier plans include access to Sprint’s network;
  • Scratch Wireless charges once for its device – a Motorola Photon Q ($99) and everything else is free, as long as you have access to Wi-Fi. Cell-based texting is also free, as a courtesy. If you need voice calling or wireless data when outside the range of a hotspot, you can buy “access passes” to Sprint’s network at prices ranging from $1.99 a day each for voice and data access to $24.99 a month for unlimited data and $14.99 a month for unlimited voice.
Scratch Wireless

Scratch Wireless

Google is pushing the FCC to open new unlicensed spectrum for expanded Wi-Fi to accommodate the growing number of wireless hotspots that are facing co-interference issues.

Wi-Fi-based wireless providers are likely to grow once coverage concerns are eased and there is reliable service as customers hop from hotspot to hotspot. The cable industry has aggressively deployed Wi-Fi access with a potential to introduce wireless service. Comcast is already providing broadband customers with network gateways that offer built-in guest access to other Comcast customers, with the potential of using a crowdsourced network of customers to power Wi-Fi coverage across its service areas. FreedomPop will eventually seek customers to volunteer access to their home or business networks for fellow users as well.

AT&T and Verizon are banking on their robust networks and coverage areas to protect their customer base. Verizon Wireless, in particular, has refused to engage in price wars with competitors, claiming Verizon customers are willing to pay more to access the company’s huge wireless coverage area. AT&T told the Wall Street Journal its customers want seamless access to its network to stay connected wherever they go.

Verizon’s chief financial officer Fran Shammo appeared unfazed by the recent developments. On last week’s conference call with investors, Shammo dismissed Google’s entry as simply another reseller of Sprint’s network. He added Google has no idea about the challenges it will face dealing directly with customers in a service and support capacity. While Google’s approach to combine the coverage of T-Mobile and Sprint together is a novel idea, Shammo thinks there isn’t much to see.

“Resellers, or people leasing the network from carriers, have been around for 15 years,” Shammo said. “It’s a complex issue.”

Investors are taking a cautious wait-and-see approach to the recent developments. Google’s new offering is likely to offer plans that are philosophically compatible with Google’s larger business agenda. Challenging the traditional business models of AT&T and Verizon that have implemented usage caps and usage pricing may be at the top of Google’s list. The new offering could give large data allowances at a low-cost and/or unlimited wireless data for a flat price. Such plans may actually steal price-sensitive customers away from Sprint and T-Mobile, at least initially. Sprint is clearly worried about that, so it has a built-in escape clause that allows a termination of its network agreement with Google almost at will.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Google Cablevision Challenge Wireless Industry 1-26-15.flv

The Wall Street Journal talks about the trend towards Wi-Fi based mobile calling networks. (1:59)

Google Fiber Prices Announced in Austin: No Surprises – 5/1Mbps Free, 1Gbps $70/Month

google fiberAustin residents will receive Google Fiber service under three rate plans: $70 for 1,000/1,000Mbps or 5/1Mbps at no charge after paying a $300 construction fee. A package including television costs $130 a month.

Google Fiber announced its prices this week in anticipation of a December launch in the capital city of Texas. But Google Fiber will arrive with at least two competitors beating them to the gigabit space: Grande Communications and AT&T.

Austin is the first city in the country to have three concurrent gigabit providers. Only Time Warner Cable has elected to sit out the city’s gigabit broadband fight. Google Fiber is expected to face stiffer competition in Austin than in Kansas City and Provo, where it also operates gigabit fiber networks. AT&T U-verse with GigaPower matches Google’s $70 price and San Marcos-based Grande Communications beats it, charging $64.99 for its 1,000Mbps service.

Google is sweetening the deal by converting the former home of a children’s museum into a “Fiber Space,” a community center at 201 Colorado Street – hosting concerts, community meetings, and clubs, in addition to showcasing Google’s fiber network.

As with AT&T’s gigabit U-verse upgrade, only a limited number of residents in Austin will initially be able to get the new fiber service. Google is initially lighting up areas in south and southeastern Austin. For some, the wait to eventually sign up could take up to several years as Google slowly builds out its network in the city of 885,000 people.

Uh Oh Time Warner Cable & AT&T: Google Fiber Winning 75% of Customers in Kansas City

google fiberDespite years of arguments from telecom companies that residential customers don’t need or want super-fast broadband speeds, the people of Kansas City think otherwise.

A survey by Wall Street analyst Bernstein Research discovered Google Fiber has signed up almost 75% of homes offered the gigabit fiber-to-the-home service.

“[Customer] penetration measured by our survey was much higher than we had expected,” said Berstein Research analyst Carlos Kirjner.

Haynes and Company conducted a door-to-door survey of more than 200 homes within Google Fiber’s service area in Kansas City, visiting wealthy, middle-income, and challenged urban areas. Despite claims from cable and phone companies that Google is only interested in choosing to offer fiber service in affluent areas, Bernstein Research found Google was doing very well in every neighborhood.

In the poorest neighborhoods, Google is still winning a 30% market share — way above estimates, with customers attracted to Google’s free 5/1Mbps broadband service (customers must pay a recently lowered $30 construction fee). Customer penetration rates in urban areas could grow even higher if Google allowed customers with free Internet service access to its $50 cable television package, now only available to gigabit broadband customers.

Google's service plans

Google’s service plans

In middle and upper income neighborhoods, Google has decisively captured a 75% market share — clearly a major problem for incumbent competitors AT&T and Time Warner Cable, which could lose well over half their customers.

Even more worrying for the cable and phone companies, Google is grabbing customers primarily on word-of-mouth testimonials from satisfied customers. At least 98% of Kansas City residents surveyed were aware of Google’s fiber offering. At least 52% said they would “definitely or probably” buy Google Fiber, 25% said they might or might not purchase the service, and only 19% said they definitely or probably wouldn’t buy it.

“Our survey suggests that Google Fiber has gained a significant foothold in its early Kansas City fiberhoods. Consumers are highly satisfied with Google Fiber service, suggesting its share gains are likely not done yet,” Kirjner added.

Bernstein believes Google can grab an even larger share of the Kansas City market by returning to mature fiberhoods in the future with aggressive marketing campaigns that could easily win even more customers.

bernsteinresearchIf Bernstein’s research holds true in other markets, Google Fiber could eventually become a serious competitive threat to both cable and telephone companies, depending on how quickly they expand. Google Fiber is also likely to become a profitable service for the search engine giant, despite the high initial expense of wiring communities for fiber optics.

Bernstein predicts that Google Fiber is positioned to capture a minimum of 50% of the Kansas City market within four years, knocking Time Warner Cable’s out of first place for the first time and posing a serious financial threat for AT&T’s less-capable U-verse platform, which has only attracted a minority share of the market. At least 40% of customers seeking a broadband and cable television package will choose Google Fiber, Bernstein Research predicts.

In almost every market, the traditional cable operator still maintains the largest share of customers. Telephone company competitors usually don’t win more than 20-30% of a market, although Verizon FiOS’ fiber network does better than most. Satellite providers only compete for television customers, which is increasingly less profitable than broadband service.

These kinds of results underline Bernstein Research’s conviction Google Fiber is not an experiment or publicity stunt that the cable industry often claims it to be. Nor does the research firm believe Google is only interested in forcing cable and phone companies to raise broadband speeds. Instead, it is becoming increasingly clear Google is prepared to gradually expand its fiber network across the country, at least in areas bypassed by Verizon FiOS or other fiber networks. However, it will take many years for this to happen.

Charlotte Lusts for Fibrant’s Fiber-to-the-Home Broadband Speed They Won’t Get Anytime Soon

fibrant_logo_headerA 2011 state law largely written by Time Warner Cable will likely keep Charlotte, N.C. waiting for fiber broadband that nearby Salisbury has had since 2010.

North Carolina is dominated by Time Warner Cable, AT&T and CenturyLink. Google and AT&T recently expressed interest in bringing their fiber networks to the home in several cities in the state, but neither have put a shovel in the ground.

Fibrant, a community owned broadband provider in Salisbury, northeast of Charlotte, not only laid 250 miles of fiber optics, it has been open for business since November 2010. It was just in time for the publicly owned venture, joining a growing number of community providers like Wilson’s Greenlight and Mooresville, Davidson and Cornelius’ MI-Connection. Time Warner Cable’s lobbyists spent several years pushing for legislation restricting the development of these new competitors and when Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011, they finally succeeded. Today, launching or expanding community broadband networks in North Carolina has been made nearly impossible by the law, modeled after a bill developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

With fiber fever gripping the state, Fibrant has gotten a lot of attention from Charlotte media because it provides the type of service other providers are only talking about. Fibrant offers residents cable television, phone, and broadband and competes directly with Time Warner Cable and AT&T. Although not the cheapest option in town, Fibrant is certainly the fastest and local residents are gradually taking their business to the community alternative.

Charlotte, N.C. is surrounded by community providers like Fibrant in Salisbury and MI-Connection in the Mooresville area.

Charlotte, N.C. is surrounded by community providers like Fibrant in Salisbury and MI-Connection in the Mooresville area.

“A lot faster Internet speeds, a lot clearer phone calls,” said Sidewalk Deli owner Rick Anderson-McCombs, who switched to Fibrant after 15 years with another provider. His mother, Anganetta Dover told WSOC-TV, “I think we save about $30 to $40 a month with Fibrant and the advantages of having the speed is so much better.”

Julianne Goodman cut cable’s cord, dropping Time Warner Cable TV service in favor of Netflix. To support her online streaming habit, she switched to Fibrant, which offers faster Internet speeds than the cable company.

Commercial customers are also switching, predominately away from AT&T in favor of Fibrant.

“Businesses love us because we don’t restrict them on uploads,” one Fibrant worker told WCNC-TV. “So when they want to send files, it’s practically instantaneous.”

Fibrant offers synchronous broadband speeds, which mean the download and upload speeds are the same. Cable broadband technology always favors download speeds over upload, and Time Warner Cable’s fastest upstream speed remains stuck at 5Mbps in North Carolina.

AT&T offers a mix of DSL and U-verse fiber to the neighborhood service in North Carolina. Maximum download speed for most customers is around 24Mbps. AT&T has made a vague commitment to increase those speeds, but customers report difficulty qualifying for upgrades.

Time Warner Cable is a big player in the largest city in North Carolina, evident as soon as you spot the Time Warner Cable Arena on East Trade Street in downtown Charlotte.

Taxpayer dollars are also funneled to the cable company.

Time Warner Cable’s $82 million data center won the company a $2.9 million Job Development Investment Grant. Charlotte’s News & Observer noted the nation’s second largest cable company also received $3 million in state incentives.

When communities like Salisbury approached providers about improving broadband speeds, they were shown the door.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WCNC Charlotte Fibrant Already Provides Fiber 3-5-14.mp4

WCNC-TV reports that with Google expressing an interest in providing fiber service in Charlotte, Salisbury’s Fibrant has been offering service since 2010. (2:57)

“Our citizens asked for high-speed Internet,” says Doug Paris, Salisbury’s city manager. “We met with the incumbent providers [like Time Warner and AT&T, and that did not fit within their business plans.”

Salisbury and Wilson, among others, elected to build their own networks. The decision to enter the broadband business came under immediate attack from incumbent providers and a range of conservative astroturf and sock puppet political groups often secretly funded by the phone and cable companies.

Rep. Avila with Marc Trathen, Time Warner Cable's top lobbyist (right) Photo by: Bob Sepe of Action Audits

Rep. Avila, a ban proponent, meets with Marc Trathen, Time Warner Cable’s top lobbyist (right) (Photo: Bob Sepe)

Critics of Fibrant launched an attack website against the venture (it stopped updating in March, 2012), suggesting the fiber venture would bankrupt the city. One brochure even calls Stop the Cap! part of a high-priced consultant cabal of “Judas goats for big fiber” (for the record, Stop the Cap! was not/is not paid a penny to advocate for Fibrant or any other provider).

Opponents also characterize Fibrant as communism in action and have distributed editorial cartoons depicting Fibrant service technicians in Soviet military uniforms guarding Salisbury’s broadband gulag.

In January of this year, city officials were able to report positive news. Fibrant has begun to turn a profit after generating $2,223,678 in the revenue from July through December, 2013. Fibrant lost $4.1 million during the previous fiscal year. That is an improvement over earlier years when the venture borrowed more than $7 million from the city’s water and sewer capital reserve fund, repaying the loans at 1 percent interest. The city believes the $33 million broadband network will break even this year — just four years after launching.

Fibrant is certainly no Time Warner Cable or AT&T, having fewer than 3,000 customers in the Salisbury city limits. But it does have a market share of 21 percent, comparable to what AT&T U-verse has achieved in many of its markets.

Fibrant also has the highest average revenue per customer among broadband providers in the city — $129 a month vs. $121 for Time Warner Cable. Customers spend more for the faster speeds Fibrant offers.

Some residents wonder if Fibrant will be successful if or when AT&T and Google begin offering fiber service. Both companies have made a splash in Charlotte’s newspapers and television news about their fiber plans, which exist only on paper in the form of press releases. Neither provider has targeted Salisbury for upgrades and nobody can predict whether either will ultimately bring fiber service to the city of Charlotte.

Those clamoring for fiber broadband speeds under the state’s anti-community broadband law will have to move to one of a handful of grandfathered communities in North Carolina where forward-thinking leaders actually built the fiber networks private companies are still only talking about.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSOC Charlotte Charlotte could gain from fiber optic network already in place 4-22-14.flv

WSOC-TV in Charlotte reports Salisbury customers are happy with Fibrant service and the competition it provides AT&T and Time Warner Cable. (2:12)

Google Fiber Threat Cited in Cincinnati Bell’s Decision to Sell Wireless Division to Verizon Wireless

cincinnati bellCincinnati Bell threw in the towel on its wireless mobile business Monday when it decided to sell its wireless spectrum licenses, network, and 340,000 customers for $210 million to its larger rival Verizon Wireless.

While most analysts say the transaction is the inevitable outcome of a wireless industry now dedicated to consolidation, at least one analyst said the threat of Google Fiber eventually entering the Cincinnati market may have also contributed to the decision to sell.

The future of Cincinnati Bell’s wireless division had been questioned for more than a year, ever since the arrival of the company’s newest CEO Ted Torbeck in January 2013. Cincinnati Bell, one of the last independent holdouts of the Bell System breakup that have not been reabsorbed by AT&T or Verizon, had struggled since Torbeck’s predecessor made some bad bets on acquisitions, including an investment in microwave communications provider Broadwing that left the company with more than $2 billion in debt in 2004. Another $526 million acquisition of data center Cyrus One left the company further in debt.

Torbeck

Torbeck

Torbeck promised a frank evaluation of Cincinnati Bell’s operations last year and keeping its declining wireless division no longer made sense with Torbeck’s focus on replacing the company’s aging copper wire network with fiber optics.

For years, Cincinnati Bell’s biggest competitor has been Time Warner Cable, which has taken away many of its landline customers. Cincinnati Bell’s mobile phone division was created to protect its core business, picking up wireless subscribers as customers dropped their landlines. But the cable company’s bundled service packages made landline service much less expensive than sticking with the phone company, and many wireless customers prefer a national wireless phone company offering better coverage and a wider selection of devices.

Rampant wireless industry consolidation has concentrated most of the cell phone market in the hands of AT&T and Verizon Wireless, giving those two companies access to the most advanced and hottest devices while regional carriers made do offering customers less capable smartphones. Its competitors’ march towards 4G LTE network upgrades also challenged Cincinnati Bell with costly capital investments in a 4G HSPA+ network that Torbeck recently decided no longer made economic sense.

Cincinnati Bell’s wireless revenue for 2013 was $202 million, a decrease of 17 percent from 2012. The company also lost 58,000 subscribers last year, an unsustainable drop that showed few signs of stopping.

610px-Verizon-Wireless-Logo_svg“Our business has been in decline for five or six years,” Torbeck told the Cincinnati Business Courier. “This is absolutely the right time to make this deal. It was probably the highest value we could get at this point in time.”

Torbeck believes Cincinnati Bell’s best chance for a future lies with with fiber optics, capable of delivering phone service along with a robust broadband and television offering that can effectively compete with Time Warner Cable.

“We’ve got to grow market share in Cincinnati and fiber optics is the way to do it,” Torbeck said in 2013. “We have about 25 percent of the city covered and we think from a financial perspective we can get to 65 or 70 percent so we’ve got significant growth opportunity there.”

fiopticsLast year, Cincinnati Bell had passed 184,000 homes with fiber optics – a 28 percent market share. But only 52,000 homes subscribed to Fioptics — Cincinnati Bell’s fiber brand. Time Warner Cable had managed to keep many of its wavering 446,000 customers loyal to the cable company with aggressive discounting and customer retention offers. But now that many of those discounts have since expired, Torbeck wants to reach 650,000-700,000 homes in its service area covering southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky and convince 50% of those customers to switch to fiber optics.

Torbeck isn’t interested in limiting his business to just greater Cincinnati either.

“At some point in time, we’d like to expand regionally into Indianapolis, Columbus,” Torbeck said. “Louisville is another opportunity. But that’s probably a little down the road. From a fiber standpoint, we could look at acquisitions and get into metro fiber. These are things we’re looking at, but these are things that are down the road. We got a lot of room for growth just here in Cincinnati.”

But financial analysts warned Cincinnati Bell’s enormous debt load limits the company’s potential to invest in expansion. Torbeck’s decision to sell off the company’s wireless unit is another step in reducing that debt and further investing in fiber optics expansion.

google fiberThe company’s unique position as the last remaining independent phone company that still bears the name of the telephone’s inventor may make the company a target for a takeover before Torbeck’s vision is realized. One analyst thinks Cincinnati Bell would be a natural target for Google, which has a recent record of repurposing fiber networks built by other companies as a cost-saving measure to further deploy Google Fiber.

“They are a small and cheap company with the infrastructure that Google could use,” said Brian Nichols. “My theory is that Google will buy undervalued companies like Cincy Bell to save on the mounting costs of buildouts, which could top $30 billion,“ Nichols wrote in an email to WCPO-TV.

Google did exactly that in Provo, Utah, acquiring struggling iProvo from the city government for $1 in return for agreeing to expand the fiber network to more homes.

Cincinnati’s local phone company would sell for considerably more than that, but it would still prove affordable for Google, which has a market value of $361 billion, about 470 times that of Cincinnati Bell.

cincCincinnati Bell has already spent about $300 million on Fioptics and plans to spend an extra $80 million this year on expansion. Before the network is complete, the phone company is likely to spend as much as $600 million on fiber upgrades. But the payoff has been higher revenue — $100 million last year alone, and a stabilizing business model that has reduced losses from landline cord-cutting. Telecom analyst Nicholas Puncer offers support for the investment, something rare for most Wall Street advisers.

“It’s a reasonable strategy,” Puncer said. “There’s only going to be more data going through networks in the future, not less. The way we consume content is going to be a lot different 10 years from now than it is today. This is their effort to be on the right side of that, giving people more options to receive that content.”

But if Google Fiber comes to town, it may not be enough.

“Google has an unprecedented luxury,” Nichols said in his email to WCPO. “They are [attaching] fiber to existing poles owned by AT&T (and other telecom companies), and then targeting areas where consumers agree for service before the network is even built. Given this demand, and its mere ability to operate in such a manner, I do think Cincinnati Bell will have major problems once that day comes (likely sooner rather than later). In fact, I don’t think they stand a chance of competing against Google.”

Cincinnati Bell said it will continue to offer wireless service for customers for the next 8 to 12 months. The company will notify customers with further details regarding transition assistance around the time of the closing, which is expected to be in the second half of 2014.

It was not immediately clear on Monday if the sale will impact jobs. Cincinnati Bell Wireless employs about 175 people, including retail store employees.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WKRC Cincinnati Cincinnati Bell selling wireless spectrum to Verizon 4-8-14.flv

WKRC in Cincinnati reports on what the sale of Cincinnati Bell Wireless to Verizon Wireless means for customers. (1:24)

Google Fiber Proposes Major Expansion, But Continues to Ignore the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic

Google has proposed expanding its gigabit fiber network to nine metropolitan areas around the United States, but none of them include cities in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast dominated by Time Warner Cable, Comcast, and Verizon FiOS.

google fiber

Altogether, the expansion project could bring fiber to the home Internet service to 34 new cities:

  • Arizona: Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe
  • California: San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Palo Alto
  • Georgia: Atlanta, Avondale Estates, Brookhaven, College Park, Decatur, East Point, Hapeville, Sandy Springs, Smyrna
  • North Carolina: Charlotte, Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham, Garner, Morrisville, Raleigh
  • Oregon: Portland, Beaverton, Hillsboro, Gresham, Lake Oswego, Tigard
  • Tennessee: Nashville-Davidson
  • Texas: San Antonio
  • Utah: Salt Lake City

Google’s Fiber Blog:

google fiberNow that we’ve learned a lot from our Google Fiber projects in Kansas City, Austin and Provo, we want to help build more ultra-fast networks. So we’ve invited cities in nine metro areas around the U.S.—34 cities altogether—to work with us to explore what it would take to bring them Google Fiber.

We aim to provide updates by the end of the year about which cities will be getting Google Fiber. Between now and then, we’ll work closely with each city’s leaders on a joint planning process that will not only map out a Google Fiber network in detail, but also assess what unique local challenges we might face. These are such big jobs that advance planning goes a long way toward helping us stick to schedules and minimize disruption for residents.

We’re going to work on a detailed study of local factors that could affect construction, like topography (e.g., hills, flood zones), housing density and the condition of local infrastructure. Meanwhile, cities will complete a checklist of items that will help them get ready for a project of this scale and speed. For example, they’ll provide us with maps of existing conduit, water, gas and electricity lines so that we can plan where to place fiber. They’ll also help us find ways to access existing infrastructure—like utility poles—so we don’t unnecessarily dig up streets or have to put up a new pole next to an existing one.

While we do want to bring Fiber to every one of these cities, it might not work out for everyone. But cities who go through this process with us will be more prepared for us or any provider who wants to build a fiber network. In fact, we want to give everyone a boost in their thinking about how to bring fiber to their communities; we plan to share what we learn in these 34 cities, and in the meantime you can check out some tips in a recent guest post on the Google Fiber blog by industry expert Joanne Hovis. Stay tuned for updates, and we hope this news inspires more communities across America to take steps to get to a gig.

Google does not guarantee every community will actually get the service, and a read between the lines makes it clear that a close working relationship between Google and city officials and utilities will be essential for projects to move forward. Bureaucratic red tape could be a fiber-killer in some of these communities, as could an intransigent utility fighting to keep Google fiber off utility-owned poles.

Google continues to completely ignore the northeastern United States for fiber expansion. Analysts suggest Google will not enter areas where fiber broadband service already exists, and this region of the country is home to the largest deployment of Verizon’s FiOS. Despite the fact Verizon has canceled further expansion, and large sections of the region have little chance of seeing a fiber upgrade anytime soon, Google seems more interested in serving the middle of the country and fast growing areas including North Carolina, Georgia, Phoenix and Texas. Its choice of San Jose obviously reflects the presence of Silicon Valley.

PowerPlay: AT&T Says Google Fiber Cannot Use Its Utility Poles in Austin

att poleAT&T has informed Google it will not allow the search engine company to use its utility poles to build a fiber optic network that will compete with AT&T’s own GigaPower fiber service, which launched in Austin this week.

Current rules require utilities to provide non-discriminatory access to poles for all electric and telecommunications companies. AT&T has declared Google is neither, but is willing to work with the company once it is “qualified,” said Tracy King, AT&T’s vice president for public affairs.

“By challenging the city to force an employer to share its equipment contrary to federal law and without transparency, Google appears to be demanding concessions never provided any other entity before,” said King.

The dispute now threatens to involve Austin’s city council, which fears AT&T’s position could result in thousands of new utility poles being installed next to AT&T-owned poles. City officials warn they are willing to settle the matter by changing the rules for all utility companies, using their authority as the owner of the land on which the utility poles are placed.

“We don’t want people to put up their own poles,” Rondella Hawkins, Austin’s telecommunications and regulatory affairs officer, told the Austin-American Statesman. “We want to avoid anybody putting up redundant utility poles. Could you imagine a city where all the (telecommunications) providers individually have their own utility poles? It would be a mess.”

Google said it wants to bring its fiber network to Austin in the least disruptive way possible, and AT&T’s actions may complicate the project.

Martinez

Martinez

The proposed rules change threatened by the city council brought immediate opposition from both AT&T and the unions that represent AT&T workers.

“The city of Austin should not jump into what amounts to a business dispute and create winners and losers before everyone can present data on all the stakes that are involved,” wrote Becky Moeller, president of the Texas AFL-CIO.

This afternoon, with the rules change pending on the calendar, Google and AT&T apparently decided to work out the dispute before the city imposed a solution.

“After hard work, lots of meetings and tons of input – AT&T and Google agree to negotiate their issues with the city,” Austin council member Mike Martinez wrote on his Facebook page. “A postponement of [the ordinance change] is highly likely. Thank you to them and all who helped make this happen.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KVUE Austin Dispute Between Google ATT 12-11-13.mp4

KVUE in Austin reports the pole attachment dispute between AT&T and Google threatens to involve the city council. (3:09)

How Overland Park Blew Google Fiber; Bureaucratic Ineptitude Stalls Project Indefinitely

lucyAfter nine months of foot dragging-negotiations between Overland Park officials and Google Fiber, a last-minute protest by a city council member over an indemnification clause that turned out to be insignificant was the last straw.

Now residents of Overland Park are off Google’s upgrade list for gigabit broadband indefinitely.

Service providers often face a minefield negotiating with local governments over issues like zoning, performance guidelines, franchise agreements, and minimizing disruption to the community. Some also face confusion about technology or a lack of understanding that infrastructure projects require careful scheduling and seasonal construction limitations.

In Overland Park, it was “all of the above” say infuriated residents who watched the fiber project slip away at an Oct. 14 city council meeting when lawyers representing Google requested an indefinite continuance.

“Clearly Google was saying to Overland Park and other cities: if you make this process too difficult for us, we will pick up our ball and go play somewhere else,” said Overland Park resident Robert Walch.

Walch said city council members appeared shocked when Google’s representative broke the news. Just a month earlier, council members including Terry Goodman, Curt Skoog, and Richard Collins seemed intent to pelt Google with a range of objections and unusual questions that suggested a lack of basic knowledge about fiber broadband.

Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

According to those in attendance, Skoog in particular seemed far out of his depth, questioning if 1,000/1,000Mbps was fast enough to provide connections for 6-12 computer terminals inside a local school.

Council member Park Lyons patronizingly told Google representatives Overland Park was one of the best cities in the country and he was glad Google recognized as much.

“There is so much excitement about Google Fiber, and I know people think we should blindly go forward, but I think we need to look at this in a dispassionate way and have due diligence,” Lyons explained.

As Google’s representatives continued to field questions about the project even as the 2013 construction season began to wind down, Skoog sensed Google’s growing exasperation, finally asking at an earlier meeting if they were prepared to walk away over what Skoog characterized as a “minor detail.”

The answer, apparently, was yes, much to the surprise of a stunned city council witnessing a privately funded, multi-million dollar broadband improvement project collapsing before their eyes. Damage control for exposed council members likely to face the wrath of voters began immediately, starting with a symbolic, but largely empty resolution expressing the council’s profound interest in the fiber project they just buried.

“It’s disappointing because it would have been nice to have in the schools and the libraries and stuff. I know that the Internet is really spotty at the school,” Katie Lehn, an Overland Park mother told KCTV-5.

“Overland Park made it really, really hard for Google, and Google has a lot of other cities and towns to work with,” noted Walch. “I have to say, if you’re on Overland Park Council now, you have to know that this is your last term.”

overland parkIndustry observers agree with Walch.

“Google maybe wanted to send a louder message that they wanted faster response from other communities to come,” said Donna Jaegers, a telecommunications analyst for D.A. Davidson & Co. “A month delay would not be enough to put off a design like that.”

“Google is sending a negotiating message to any other city: You take our terms, or we’re going to walk,” said Steve Effros, an industry analyst who headed the Cable Telecommunications Association for two decades.

Effros told the Associated Press Google was obviously making an example out of Overland Park, while getting special treatment from other nearby communities that incumbent cable and phone companies never got.

The message that Google is willing to walk away from lucrative, upscale communities like Overland Park over bureaucratic headaches has an impact on both Google and local government. Overland Park is an upscale community of 176,000 within metro Kansas City. The community’s median household income is more than $66,500 a year — excellent prospects to sign up for Google service.

blew itBut now Overland Park will have to wait even as neighborhoods around the community get the fiber optic service first.

“Overland Park wants Google Fiber,” said Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach. “The city council is ready to sign on the dotted line. … We’re willing to wait as long as it takes.”

Google isn’t ready to forgive and forget just yet, and communities like Overland Park cannot say they were never warned.

Milo Medin, Google’s vice president of access services, told the media in May that Google was picking communities that make their life easier as the fiber infrastructure is installed.

“In general, we go where it’s easy to build,” Medin said. “If you make it hard for me to build, and there are other places where it’s easy to build, I will probably go to those other places.”

Six months later, nothing has changed.

“We need to refocus our energy and our resources on the communities that are waiting for fiber,” said Google spokeswoman Jenna Wandres.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KCTV Kansas City Overland Park on Hold With Google 10-25-13.mp4

KCTV in Kansas City reports Overland Park residents are unhappy Google Fiber is popping up everywhere, but not in Overland Park.  (3 minutes)

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