Google’s fiber network is attempt to force telcos to change

As we reported earlier, Google announced plans today to rollout a limited offering of 1-gigabit fiber network. The company claims it will will adopt an open access approach making its network open to other service providers as well. What’s most interesting about this announcement isn’t the possibilities of high-speed, instead, it’s the thought of how this test rollout could effect the telco industry.

Google has slowly been crossing paths with the telcos, a fact that’s been more than obvious from its series of forays over the course of recent years. However, while telcos have always looked at Google with a sense of alarm, this latest announcement is likely to set the cat among the pigeons. Telcos have traditionally considered selling voice minutes and, of late, data bundles, their raison d’être. While so-called “over-the-top” services from Internet players such as Google have threatened telco revenues from additional services, their core networks were never under threat. At worst, most telcos believed they might be relegated to the role of a dumb-pipe. That is now set to change.
Google’s apparent entry into the fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) space comes as a rude awakening for US telcos. Consider for instance, Google’s proposition that it will allow third-party service providers to use the network. While that might sound great in isolation, Google appears to be making a clear move aimed to force the FCC to allow last-mile fiber unbundling. “Unbundling” would allows service providers to use the existing last-mile network of an incumbent operator. The FCC currently exempts incumbent telco operators from having to lease their lines to other providers. But the FCC continues to get requests from providers to fully enforce unbundling with regards to fiber rollouts, as it does for fixed lines.

Similarly, consider Google’s emphasis on communities. In its announcement today, it reached out to local community managers interested in bringing the test network to their neighborhoods through its public Request for Information. A key factor that determines speed of FTTH rollouts, and implicitly cost, is getting the necessary regulatory permissions and the right to use existing infrastructure. By encouraging local residents/community managers to reach out to Google with a list of what their community can offer, Google is striking at one of the biggest challenges telcos routinely face across the world in terms of fiber rollouts: that of encouraging higher uptake in areas where they’ve already rolled out services. Experience from smaller European fiber operators such as Lyse clearly demonstrates that higher user involvement in the overall fiber rollout process helps drive down churn (churn refers to the number of subscribers that move away from a service — a key metric for any telecom service provider). Lyse rolls out the fiber network right up to the edge of a subscriber’s home and then encourages the subscriber to dig and lay out the fiber themselves through their gardens and into their homes. This has helped it create create an emotional attachment to the service, which has a clear impact on churn.

I’m not saying Google is already looking to build services aimed at rapid uptake with minimal churn. But these are two sure indicators that Google is now ready and willing to shake up the teleco ecosystem by striking at the heart of what they do and how they do it. They are pointers that Google clearly understands some of the biggest telco challenges and is ready to come up with innovative ways to address them should it decide to go all-out as a fiber service provider.

Globally, telcos have always tried to make the case that fiber rollouts are highly capital intensive — even more so when they are FTTH as opposed to Fiber-to-the-Node/Cerb. They’ve used this point to make their case against last-mile unbundling or, in some instances, as a case against net neutrality. High investments have acted as a natural entry barrier, and with low competition, pricing of the access services has remained high. Moreover, lower competition has meant there’s less incentive for telcos to rapidly rollout networks. Google’s entry (or the threat of it) could change that.

It is quite possible that Google will back down from its stated “experiment” after the initial rollout. But it’s more likely that Google will continue with a phased rollout program until it can generate enough panic amongst the telcos to create what it set out to create. But until then, the noise around Google’s FTTH plans are only going get more shrill and gain more momentum across the developer and user communities.

Google does not necessarily have to go ahead with a highly capital-intensive network rollout and subsequent maintenance, a completely alien line of business compared to its core search advertising business. All it needs to do to is ensure that the right environment is created to force change upon existing telcos. For proof of the same, think back in time to the whole debate around open mobile ecosystems and Google’s ‘bids‘ for wireless spectrum. I believe today’s announcement was a first — albeit giant — step in that direction.

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