Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — A couple of springs ago, Google — amid much pomp and fanfare — announced that Salt Lake City had been distinguished from a long list of hopeful American cities to become recipients of Google Fiber service and that dizzying download speeds were just around the corner.
The world’s largest corporation also applied the gilding to the lily in promising that all would be accomplished completely at their expense.
Now, just over two years later, progress on the project appears to be moving at dial-up speeds, with relatively few areas of the city enjoying active, Google Fiber service and a small number of residents feeling less than giddy about their interactions with the company.
And the downside to the privately funded effort is that the company has zero obligation to keep residents informed about future installations, follow-through on promised scheduling or answer questions from the media.
Google declined to provide specific information about how many Salt Lake residents currently have service, in what order the city’s neighborhoods would be receiving service or how long it will take to complete the work of establishing access to Google Fiber service citywide.
Last fall, Google made its second public splash, announcing that the major infrastructure “ring” had been completed and a section of downtown was fully wired and providing service to residents who signed up for it. The company also said it was prepared to move quickly to get the city’s remaining neighborhoods connected and whetted residents’ appetites with impressive public demonstrations of the power of fiber, like downloading a full-length HD movie in a matter of seconds.
Sugar House Community Council Chairman Landon Clark said a Google representative visited a meeting of his council about a year before the announcement and indicated his neighborhood would be seeing service in the summer of 2016.
“Obviously, they were far behind their hoped-for schedule,” Clark said.
“But while a lot of people have experienced some frustration with the delays, they’ve been working in our area for several weeks now and people are excited about getting hooked up to fiber service,” he added.
When asked for details about exactly where Google Fiber service is currently available to Salt Lake residents, a company spokesperson sent coordinates that mirrored the service area announced last fall and a statement that they were “actively constructing, signing up and providing service” in Sugar House. Clark said it seemed like a “pretty good section” of Sugar House’s residential areas either had service or had seen recent signs of cabling activity.
While no active service appears to be currently available to Rose Park residents, there’s been plenty of fiber-related activity in the area and, for some residents, just a bit too much installation action.
David Parrott was happy to see signs of Google Fiber being installed in and around his Rose Park neighborhood last fall, shortly after the company’s announcement of initial service to downtown residents.
“It seems like the west side is usually last on the list to get the cool, new stuff that comes to Salt Lake City, so we were definitely excited to see that, for a change, we were going to be among the first (to get fiber service),” Parrott said.
Later, that enthusiasm took a turn following an unexpected encounter between a subcontractor’s underground drill and his residential water line. While a drilling crew was nearby, the running water in his house “just stopped.”
Parrott said the workers from Mile High Contracting acknowledged they had severed the water line, but when asked when they would be able to repair the damage, the contractor gave an unexpected response.
“Google’s subcontractor told us it wasn’t their problem and that we should contact our home insurer,” Parrott said. “We were really surprised and just thought, ‘This is kind of weird.'”
Parrott said he contacted HomeServe, the company through which they had supplemental insurance for their outside water line.
“The company denied our claim and told us that they’d heard from other people with coverage in our area with similar issues,” Parrott said. “And they said it was Google’s responsibility.”
With no working water service and no one ready to take responsibility for the damage, Parrott said they turned to the city for help, contacting both their council representative and a person they knew in the mayor’s office. That finally got the repair effort moving.
“Someone from the city came out, and someone from Google came out and, eventually, the water line got fixed,” Parrott said.
At a Rose Park Community Council meeting held after the water line incident, Parrott said he spoke to the audience there, which included a Google representative.
“I stood up and related the story of what we’d been through to the Google rep and my neighbors,” said Parrott. “And I thought, ‘All you have to do now is say we’re sorry and it was our fault.'”
That didn’t happen, and it led Parrott to do some research to determine if their experience was an anomaly, or if there was more going on.
“I looked up all the other communities where Google has been and a lot of them had the same treatment,” said Parrott. “In every single municipality where they put Google Fiber, there are news stories about how badly the installation has gone.”
Tennessee’s capital city, Nashville was about 15 months into its Google Fiber installation last fall, and according to a story published in November in The Tennessean, over 70 “utility strikes” had occurred, with an estimated damage value in excess of $260,000.
The Salt Lake Public Utilities Department was asked about the total number of fiber installation-related utility strikes in Salt Lake City, but wasn’t able to offer complete data in time for this story.
District 1 Councilman James Rogers said he’s heard from a few residents in his district who have had issues with property damage related to the Google Fiber installation effort, but it was his impression that the company was getting better at taking care of needed repairs.
“Of course it’s unfortunate that it happened and I feel for those individuals that have had issues,” Rogers said. “But, if we can get them resolved and everybody’s happy with how it’s fixed, I think in the long run it’s going to be a good thing for us.”
Xmission founder and CEO Pete Ashdown has been a cautionary voice about Google Fiber coming to Salt Lake City since the company’s debut announcement in 2015. He said he wasn’t surprised that the installation job is behind schedule.
“Installing fiber optic cable is fraught with peril,” Ashdown said. “You can always count on it being expensive and you can always count on it taking longer than you ever think it will.”
Ashdown said he was surprised that Google wasn’t more dialed-in on the process, considering its experience with other, so-called “Google Fiber cities” and the breadth of knowledge that’s out there in the contracting community where fiber cable installation has been active since the 1990s.
“You’d think a company with the resources of Google could be brash about getting out there and doing it quickly,” Ashdown said. “They seem to be surprised at how much money it’s costing and how long it’s taking, which is incredible because it’s (fiber cable installation) been going on for decades.”
And while Google will offer no estimate on when it might cross the fiber installation finish line in Salt Lake City, some sense of timeline may be gleaned from Kansas City. The company’s first municipal fiber project was announced in 2011 with installation starting the following year. The city has about three times the population of Salt Lake City and, as of now, some Kansas City residents are still awaiting fiber service in their neighborhoods.
While the road to fiber installation in Salt Lake City has been bumpy, reviews from those who have the service are very positive.
Downtown Community Council Chairman D. Christian Harrison signed up for the 100 megabit-per-second service (fast enough to download a full-length HD movie in about 6 minutes, according to Google) and said he couldn’t be happier with the experience.
“I signed up immediately and was in the first wave of folks who got service,” Harrison said. “The installation went smoothly and suddenly I had speeds far faster than I’ve ever had.”
He did offer one minor caveat about the “box” that is installed in customer homes who sign up for the service.
“Really, the only complaint I have is the hardware we have to deal with,” Harrison said. “It’s unwieldy, it’s unattractive and it’s in the middle of my living room.”
Harrison noted that even though there’s an even faster level of service available, 1,000-megabits-per-second (a gigabit), he couldn’t imagine needing it.
Prices for Salt Lake customers start at $50 a month for the Fiber 100 (100 Mbps) and go up from there. A gigabit will cost you $70 a month and Google also offers add-ons like fiber TV for an additional $90 a month, fiber phone for $10 a month or an entertainment package (with streaming services like Spotify Premium) for $15 a month.
An informal survey of the city’s community groups reflect that, at the moment, besides the already serviced downtown area, only Sugar House and Rose Park have active Google Fiber installation happening in residential areas. The East Bench and East Liberty Wells councils have had recent visits from Google reps and Fairpark Community Council was told the area would be seeing service near the end of the year.
In recent months, Google has scaled back its previously reported expansion of Google Fiber service to other U.S. cities, but has been unwavering in reassurances that the Salt Lake project will be seen through to completion.
In a statement shared with the Deseret News, the company wrote:
“Our commitment to SLC remains: build the fastest, most effective and highest quality network in the most efficient and least disruptive way possible.”
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News