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Google Fiber could cause concerns in Huntsville

by Johnny Kampis

Huntsville leaders are lavishing praise on Google Fiber for its impending gigabit-capable internet service, practically dubbing the company a savior that will recruit plenty of business to the Rocket City. But the laurels come on the heels of a report that shows Huntsville is already the fastest growing tech-town in the U.S. and as other internet providers who built their own networks from the ground up are working on expansions to offer gig internet.

Huntsville residents and business in some locations are now being offered the opportunity to sign up for Google Fiber’s gig service, which began in late May.

City Councilman Devyn Keith told television station WHNT he sees the expansion of Google Fiber into Huntsville “as more of a partnership than a promotion.”

“The importance of having Google Fiber is that we now incentivize not only homeowners, but we also incentivize businesses to make more of a partnership with the city,” he said.

It would seem Huntsville is already doing just fine in enticing business and industry within its city limits before the arrival of Google Fiber. ZipRecruiter and Payscale named Huntsville the top tech city in the U.S. in a recent study, besting the likes of Phoenix, Orlando, Salt Lake City and Baltimore.

The ranking said Huntsville’s year-over-year job growth was 309 percent, with the top careers being software and systems engineers, and systems and information technology specialists, reported.

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Google Fiber will be able to lease dark fiber from Huntsville Utilities rather than build its own network from scratch. The utility is building the $57 million fiber network using ratepayer funds to better monitor its power system, but will also allow gigabit download and upload speeds for all Huntsville residents in Madison County.

Huntsville Utilities said it hopes to recoup much of the project’s cost through lease agreements with private providers, but pointed out last year that the publicly available documents don’t reveal how much Google Fiber is paying for the privilege of the lease. No other leasees have been named.

Because Huntsville Utilities’ ability to pay off the financing of the construction is dependent on Google Fiber’s success, it has a vested interest in the marketing and success of the internet service.

Mayor Tommy Battle also touted the recruitment of Google Fiber to Huntsville as part of his re-election campaign in 2016.

The company is also far from the only provider who plans to offer gig speeds in Huntsville. AT&T is rolling out its AT&T Internet 1000 gigabit service not only to Huntsville, but also to Athens and Florence. WOW! Internet, Cable & Phone began offering gig speeds in Huntsville last fall. And Comcast plans to begin offering the same speeds before the end of 2017, with capability of speeds of up to 10 gigs.
Prices for many of these services are comparable to the rates for Google Fiber.

Mediacom announced in February it would provide gig services in 18 communities in north Alabama and south Tennessee, taking a swipe at the subsidies and favors enjoyed by Google Fiber in the process.

“Unlike some other gigabit broadband providers whose services are limited to selected neighborhoods and may rely on federal, state or local taxpayer subsidies, Mediacom is investing its own money to make 1 Gig Internet speeds available across its entire Huntsville area network, to every home in the neighborhoods the company serves,” the company statement said.

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While Google Fiber seems to be moving forward in Huntsville, the buyers might want to beware given the company’s track record. The Alphabet division of Google that operates Google Fiber laid off nearly 10 percent of its workforce last October as it paused or quit fiber construction in 10 major cities. The company also told customers on a waiting list in Kansas City – where Google Fiber built its first gig network – that they wouldn’t be served.

The cities in which Google Fiber ducked out on includes Portland, where bureaucrats bent over backwards to entice the tech behemoth to build there. Oregon implemented a law exempting gig internet from property taxes and Portland created a franchise agreement with broader latitude than the standard that would have allowed Google Fiber to cherry-pick its customers in more affluent areas.

Louisville and Nashville created ordinances that gave Google Fiber easy access to utility poles – and competitors’ equipment – to the chagrin of other providers, who are now suing those cities.

Google Fiber’s entry into the Huntsville market is certainly a positive, as more free-market competition is a good thing. But let’s not peg that company, which has enjoyed more than its share of governmental help, as the one that will “turn around” Huntsville, a city with a population approaching 200,000 that’s a leader in aeronautics research. The Rocket City was already doing just fine on its own.

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