Complaints mount as Google Fiber extends its reach in Kansas City
06/23/2014 8:22 PM
06/23/2014 8:22 PM
Much as the anticipation for a swifter Internet for Kansas City continues to grow, so do complaints about the sometimes inconvenient construction of Google Inc.’s infobahn.
Rutted lawns. Busted gas lines. Unannounced construction workers in the backyard.
Residents have been calling City Hall for help in prodding Google Fiber’s many contractors for fixes since the work began, registering gripes that have grown with the network’s speeding rollout this spring and summer.
City officials give Google high marks for pressuring its contractors to make right when things go wrong.
The California tech titan says that, for a project that’s so far crisscrossed 7,000 miles across the metro area on utility poles and underground lines, it’s fielded relatively few complaints and rarely found one that it couldn’t rectify.
“Unfortunately, from time to time there is disruption,” said Google Fiber spokeswoman Jenna Wandres. “When we hear about issues, we work to fix them as soon as possible.”
Still, the massive Internet build out leaves some residents peeved.
“It seems like they’re just slamming this stuff in there,” said Mac Andrew. He was annoyed by the sometimes after-dark hours kept by crews in his Verona Hills neighborhood near 119th Street and State Line Road, along with the mess workers left out during the work and the time it took to repair a sidewalk.
Andrew was public works director for both Jackson and Johnson counties and was assistant director of water services for Kansas City. Andrew said that from what he’s seen, “it’s just a sloppy operation.”
Emails circulated to and among Kansas City officials, and shared with The Star in response to a public records request, give a snapshot of dissatisfaction.
Homeowners complain of workers crossing their properties without notice — something Google said it tells contractors not to do. Some residents reached out to City Hall after their lawns were damaged, buried sprinklers were busted or water, telephone, cable TV, electrical or gas lines were cut.
“You just wouldn’t believe what a nightmare this has been for me,” said Mary Jo Kaifer, who lives in the Amber Meadows neighborhood in Clay County. “They’re doing a pretty darn crummy job.”
Kaifer said Google contractors hit a gas line while digging under her driveway. The gas line was repaired quickly, but she said her yard and driveway haven’t been repaired to her satisfaction.
The complaints reflect the scale of a massive private infrastructure that can only be wired across the metropolitan sprawl with much digging and tree-trimming. Google is attempting in a few years to build the sort of network that other telecommunications companies pieced together over decades.
Google’s work is distinct because it strings fiberoptic cables — glass wires that can move huge amounts of data through pulses of light — directly into homes and apartments.
Then-Everest Communications — later called SureWest and now known as Consolidated Communications — drew similar complaints in 2002 when it built a smaller network in parts of Kansas City and Johnson County. Everest then, like Google today, drew fire when its construction ruptured gas lines or tore up yards.
“Building a fiberoptic communications network to every neighborhood, past every home, is not a simple undertaking,” said Kevin Anderson, Everest’s CEO at the time. “It does involve trenching and burying cable. It does involve situations where we need to restore people’s yards. There is machinery in the neighborhoods. It will not be without some disruption locally.”
The payoff was competition for the existing cable company.
Likewise, the Google project offers more competition. The new residential service makes Kansas City the largest market in the country with upload and download speeds nearing a gigabit per second. That is 50 to 100 times faster than most American home broadband.
AT&T Inc. has said it is contemplating a similar service in Kansas City, meaning more construction and resulting disruptions. But Google is building its network from scratch. AT&T would only need to extend fiberoptic connections from existing switching stations to homes, suggesting less digging and inconvenience.
Tens of thousands of construction permits have been issued for Google’s work in Kansas City. They give the company and its contractors permission to plant metal boxes on public rights of way — land where utilities and governments have authority to operate on private property — and to slice through lawns, sidewalks, driveways and other places where utility easements exist.
Grading the company’s record of keeping headaches to a minimum is difficult. Industry analysts say there is no easy yardstick to judge by.
Meantime, city officials and other utilities — they share some of the same power poles and underground conduit — give Google high marks for responding to construction complaints.
Rick Usher, Kansas City’s assistant city manager and point man on Google Fiber, said complaints appear to have climbed this summer along with the speed of construction. Google has said it expects to complete installation to all its customers in the city by year’s end. It will move into suburbs after that.
The company has established a complaint hotline, 877-454-6959, and in recent months begun to staff those phones around the clock.
Google’s agreement with Kansas City granting the authority to build the network does not require the company to reveal how many complaints it fields.
“I don’t have a clear picture,” Usher said. “I don’t know if the city is seeing 5 percent (of complaints to Google) or 20 percent.”
LoRee Knoll said it took her a month and a half to get repairs to her lawn and sidewalk in the Village Glen neighborhood in south Kansas City. She has had multiple conversations with a Google representative, a contractor and her City Council representative.
“It wasn’t easy,” she said, and the repaired sidewalk “looks bad.”
Crews working around the Diastole Scholars’ Center on Hospital Hill damaged sprinklers, a stone wall and landscaping. Diane Magers, the academic event center’s business manager, said it took about 90 days to reverse the damage.
Work this spring on Google Fiber in Patrice Harris’ Grandview neighborhood started a series of problems she still is working out with the company and its contractors. Harris said she thinks the construction broke a sewer line leading from her home, triggered backups and is responsible for mold damage. She is pursuing a resolution.
“It’s been terrible,” she said.
Google’s Wandres says quality-control crews monitor its contractors. The company responds immediately to urgent situations, such as broken utility lines. It tries to fix cosmetic damage in a few days, she said.
“Sometimes there is a slight delay because of circumstances that are out of our hands. … Sometimes we don’t get the complaints immediately,” Wandres said. “We keep working to keep fiber construction noise, mess to a minimum.”