Google Fiber goes full Wizard of Oz: We're not in Kansas any more

City wakes up to emails cancelling long-awaited 1Gbps broadband

Analysis Looking back, it should have been obvious: when Google announced in 2011 that it would roll out its own super-fast internet service for just $70 a month, offering 1Gbps over its own fiber, it started out in Kansas.

Another extravaganza that started in Kansas, in the very center of the United States, was the Wizard of Oz – the classic tale of a naïve child taken ill, who underwent a series of delusions in which she believed she was fighting against evil but knew she would win thanks to having a good heart.

But just as Dorothy had her dreams shattered when it turned out the Wizard of Oz did not possess magic powers and could not make her dreams come true, so Google has come to realize that it simply can't afford to keep running Google Fiber at a loss out of some naïve fantasy of how internet access should work.

This week, hundreds, possibly thousands, of hopeful Google Fiber customers awoke from their reverie to find an email from the ad-serving giant in which they were told, finally, that their multi-year wait for fast, cheap internet access was over: they wouldn't be getting it after all.

"Thanks for signing up for Google Fiber," it began. "Although we've been working hard to bring you service, we're unable to build our network to connect your home or business at this time.

"Unfortunately, that means we'll need to cancel your Fiber account. If you paid a deposit, we'll refund your deposit amount to your original form of payment in the next two weeks."

Yellow brick no

Unsurprisingly, Kansas City dwellers are not too impressed with this turn of events. Former IT worker Larry Meurer told Kansas City telly station KSHB that he'd signed up over 18 months ago but despite having seen numerous Google Fiber trucks in the neighborhood, he never got an email – until the cancellation came through. "I'm left wondering what is going on," he said.

He's not the only one: Google refuses to divulge what's happening, saying only that it "loves Kansas City and is here to stay." While it also claims to be expanding in some parts of the city (the up-and-coming Raymore area and the densely populated Overland Park), the Google Fiber website notes that people only have until March 23 – later this week – to sign up for service in the limited areas where it is expanding.

Estimates are that several thousand people have received the cancellation notices, representing a further retreat away from Google's grand mission.

Google is slowly killing its plan to take on Big Cable. When Fiber CEO Craig Barratt stepped down back in October, Google didn't replace him. Last month it finally announced Greg McCray was taking over – and the first thing he did was slash staff.

Since then, Google has been pushing people to its wireless Webpass service (if you check out eligibility for Fiber, chances are you'll be redirected to Webpass). In short, Google is killing off its plans for rolling out fiber and for some reason has decided to be infuriatingly chummy about it rather than just admit to the situation.

"Google Fiber remains committed to our customers and cities. We want to bring Google Fiber to customers faster, so we're focused on making deployment more efficient and less intrusive," we were told. The web ad giant said the same to KSHB – it is "committed to Kansas City" – although wouldn't comment further.

Click your heels

It was only a year ago that Google was so sure of its Kansas City bet that it announced it was going to offer free internet access to nine public housing facilities in the area. Over 80 per cent of the city has said it was interested in getting the service. But as we noted at the time, that approach was flying in the face of financial realities: Google Fiber is a big part of the "Other Bets" division of the company and it has lost $3.5 billion in the previous 12 months.

Just two months later, the inevitable: it was killing off its free internet program. But, Google noted – as it notes every time it withdraws Google Fiber projects – it will continue supplying those it has already connected. As to who and how many those people are however, well, Google won't tell anyone that.

But it wasn't all a complete failure. In fact, Google Fiber's most useful legacy may be that it shone a spotlight on the lack of real competition in the ISP market and flagged up the fact that Big Cable can do much more than it is currently doing if it's in its interests.

Big Cable repeatedly sued Google as a way of slowing down its rollout of fiber in Kansas City. When that failed, in 2015, AT&T suddenly announced that it would also offer a new 1Gbps service for the same $70 a month price (plus $29 a month if you don't want it to sell your personal details). Even more amazingly, two months after that, Comcast decided it would be able to offer no less than 2Gbps service.

Both companies have been equally responsive to Google Fiber's problems.

AT&T vice president of federal regulatory issues, Joan Marsh, wrote a blog post mocking Google Fiber as an "experiment," writing: "Google Fiber will no doubt continue its broadband experiments, while coming up with excuses for its shortcomings and learning curves ... It will also no doubt continue to seek favoritism from government at every level."

And just today, Comcast showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that less competition does not mean it will slow down: it is more than doubling the speed of its Performance service for no cost in Kansas City.

That's right: from 25Mbps to 55Mbps for just $60 a month. Who needs 1,000Mbps anyway? ®


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