Technology

‘This makes no sense’: How Google Fiber left KC customers in dark 11 days after storm

The winter storm that struck Kansas City Jan. 12 hit Google Fiber — and many of its customers — especially hard.

Crews have replaced downed fiber optic cables and repaired damaged central stations called Fiber huts.

Restoring customer confidence may take longer than the dozen or more days some went without service.

For many Google Fiber subscribers, the extended outage revealed a different side of the company that had picked this market over 1,100 others to launch its breakthrough high-speed internet service nearly eight years ago.

“I was calling every day. What is going on?” Kansas City resident Kim Riley said after 11 days without service. “You all are Google, the world tech leaders. This makes no sense.”

Customer service representatives told Riley a different story seemingly every time, she said, but they could never say when the company could restore the internet access she needed to access her subscriptions to SlingTV, Netflix and Hulu.

This was in stark contrast to Riley’s memory of the hoopla when Google rolled out its service here. And where were all those Google Fiber vans? Riley can’t remember the last time she saw one.

“No one’s taking a day off,” said Rachel Merlo, Google Fiber’s community impact manager in Kansas City.

The company has expanded its efforts by bringing in crews from other markets, redirecting crews from other duties to take up repairs and working diligently to discover and fix problems across 22 municipalities the company serves in the Kansas City area, Merlo said.

And, Merlo said, there’s a reason customers such as Riley may not have noticed Google Fiber vans. Repairs largely have been handled by companies under contract with Google, driving vans bearing those other companies’ names.

Google Fiber vans, including some contractors whose vans were branded with Google Fiber, typically work on installations.

It has been that way from the start, Merlo said. The Google Fiber van fleet is as large as ever.

She declined, however, to provide information about the number of employees here, the size of the company’s fleet, the number of contract crews in place or the number of customers the company has.

Although Merlo said service to a relatively small share of the company’s customer base was disrupted, she said this was one of the most significant outages Google Fiber has seen in its original market.

Other internet and cable providers also struggled against the damage Mother Nature had wrought.

Merlo said that the storm may have uncovered reasons to “revisit training” of customer service representatives. Some may have told customers what they “believed” was true without knowing, she said. Merlo said she “takes to heart” the “pain points” customers have expressed on the phone and in social media posts and will share that within Google.

Google Fiber customers have complained that they could not get explanations for why their service was out.

Craig Morea asked Google Fiber’s Twitter account on Jan. 20 what was wrong. Broken overhead lines? Equipment failure at a fiber hut?

“I think giving out this kind of information would help us stop feeling in the dark NO PUN INTENDED,” he wrote.

The customer service representative answered that “it’s a bit of both. We have broken lines and damaged Fiber huts in various different locations and are still working on the repairs in order to get everyone back online.”

Customers, however, wanted to know what was wrong at their house and especially when it might be fixed. The answer repeatedly was that Google Fiber did not know, often followed by an assurance it would be resolved “ASAP.”

Responses to other Twitter inquiries cited “inches of snow on the ground,” “frozen lines” and continuing power outages. One tied delays to “still working with local utilities” whose poles carry Google Fiber lines.

Merlo said all of those reasons created problems for repair crews.

One area with an extended outage was the small south Kansas City neighborhood of Mayfair.

Google Fiber’s delay in fixing John Evans’ service sent him into his back yard. He discovered the fiber optic line to his home had been severed at the nearby utility pole. He reported the problem, even sending a photo of the broken line.

He’s been a Google Fiber and Fiber TV customer for nearly 5 years and has encouraged others to sign up. His bill always has been for the fastest internet speed Google Fiber offered and the full Fiber TV package. He figures he’s spent $9,000 on Google services.

Evans said the crewman who showed up, a contractor using another company’s truck, did not know that the problem was the downed line to his home.

“That’s their infrastructure problem,” Evans said. “They’ve essentially just kind of abandoned the infrastructure piece of it, and they’re farming it out. When something like this happens, they can’t get up to speed.”

Jeff Buckley, another Google Fiber customer in Mayfair, tried to cancel the service after getting no explanation of the outage’s cause or any estimate of when it would be fixed.

KCM_GOOGLEFIBER001
Jeff Buckley, a resident in the Mayfair neighborhood in south Kansas City, was without Google Fiber internet service for 11 days after the storm that hit on Jan. 12. He contacted Google Fiber six times during the outage, and was disappointed by their lack of explanation of the cause. Shelly Yang syang@kcstar.com

Don’t do that, Buckley said he was told by a customer service representative. He was told that if he canceled before service was restored, he might not get credit on his next bill for the outage time.

Google Fiber has told many customers that they would receive credit on their next bill for the time they were without service. Merlo said she was unaware of any connection between canceling and receiving the credit, that customers may cancel when they wish.

Buckley was determined to cancel. He signed up for Spectrum’s internet service on Jan. 20, taking advantage of the Spectrum cable line in place from previous service to the house.

And Jean Buckley, his wife, had told the crewman who knocked on their door that they were canceling.

In addition to trying customers’ patience, Google Fiber’s extended outage has hurt their pocketbooks.

Charles Wagner, yet another Mayfair customer with an extended outage, said he spends more than $50 a month on streaming television services, including SlingTV, that he couldn’t use without internet service. He’s also had to drive to his job in Olathe for the couple of days a week he normally works from home.

Wagner said the outage also means he has been without Wi-Fi service at home for his cellphone.

“I’ve used up all my mobile data,” Wagner said.

That means twice, Verizon has hit him for $15 for using data beyond what his service plan provides.

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