Technology

Google Fiber is using Kansas City as a laboratory for its new wireless plans

Google Fiber plans to install equipment in this alley near YJ’s Snack Bar in Kansas City’s Crossroads area to experiment with carrying broadband signals wirelessly.
Google Fiber plans to install equipment in this alley near YJ’s Snack Bar in Kansas City’s Crossroads area to experiment with carrying broadband signals wirelessly. The Kansas City Star

Imagine Google Fiber without the fiber — the glass wire cables the company in the past touted as a future-proof way to plug your home into the speediest paths for moving data to and fro.

Various moves by the company’s parent, renamed Alphabet, in recent months signal that Google Fiber could ultimately swap the costly-to-install fiber-optic lines for antennas and radio waves.

That could reflect the company’s experience in Kansas City, where the still-ongoing work of building a network has introduced Google Fiber to the costs and delays of construction.

“There are probably some lessons learned from Kansas City about the complexity of doing it and the cost of doing it,” said Dave Scott, a partner in Kansas City-based Avid Communications LLC, which provides internet and phone services to businesses.

The shift could mean a pause in the internet seller’s ambitious expansion plans. Few people outside Kansas City and a few other markets have one-gigabit-per-second connections at home. If the growth of that super-connectivity stalls, developers will have less incentive to find new applications that make the most of it.

Yet Google Fiber also hopes that by leapfrogging to wireless deployment — most likely in cities where it’s yet to build — such a shift might ultimately speed its push to sell faster internet hookups.

It also puts the resources of the multibillion-dollar behemoth Alphabet into figuring out how to make eye-blink downloads possible without ripping up streets and lawns to string cables to homes.

“The good news is that Google has lots of resources to look at lots of different technologies,” said Glen Friedman, a media and technology consultant at Ideas & Solutions. “It’s not a surprise that they’re finding that laying cable … is expensive and time-consuming.”

Google Fiber got a go-ahead from Kansas City officials in April to start mounting experimental radio gear to light poles and other structures in select areas of town so it can toy with wireless broadband connections across the miles.

After it got the Kansas City OK, the company applied to the Federal Communications Commission early this month to use an open but little-used spectrum of the airwaves — wireless industry skeptics say it’s available because it’s not terribly valuable — to pump fat pipe broadband to residential and small-business customers.

Meantime, Google Fiber has put plans to expand into San Jose, Calif., and Portland, Ore., on hold. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the company wants to use wireless technology rather than old-school, high-dollar cable installation to deliver no-buffer internet in perhaps a dozen new markets. Sources familiar with the situation told The Star that expansion to large markets such as Los Angeles and Chicago could rely on wireless systems rather than pricey cable installation.

“We’re continuing to work with city leaders to explore the possibility of bringing Google Fiber to many cities,” the company said in an email. “This means deploying the latest technologies in alignment with our product road map, while understanding local considerations, which takes time.”

The company also faced local regulations there that might less easily be bent to its needs. It chose Kansas City to launch Google Fiber, in part, because local officials were eager to ease building permits and utility pole attachments to speed the project.

Google Fiber has yet to complete its network in Kansas City and its suburbs. That work will still rely on fiber-optic cables. That system offers the most reliable connection in use today. Such work has also come with headaches for property owners, who complain about Google Fiber subcontractors tearing up their lawns and sometimes leaving drawn-out fights about who’s responsible to pay for repairs.

“We’re committed to providing ultrafast high-speed broadband service to our current customers in Kansas City, and are working really hard to bring Fiber to as many neighborhoods as possible,” the company said in its statement on Monday.

The company is also using Kansas City as a laboratory for its wireless hopes. David Ford’s building at 18th and Wyandotte streets — home to his art studio, a collection of shops and YJ’s Snack Bar — is among the places the technology will get tested.

Ford said the company told him the building provides helpful challenges because of its brick and concrete walls. Used decades ago to store highly flammable motion picture film, it poses a barrier that wireless signals have trouble penetrating.

“They’ve been checking our electrical usage and anything else that might come into play,” Ford said.

Google Fiber’s plans look at using the 3.5 gigahertz spectrum. For decades, the targeted radio spectrum could be used only by the U.S. military. In practice, it remained mostly vacant.

In early 2015, federal regulators opened the spectrum to see whether it could lighten airwave congestion on other bands. Dubbed the Citizens Broadband Radio Service by the FCC, the spectrum previously had been set aside for military use. The Navy, in particular, still uses the band for some functions. So its use may be hampered in some areas near military bases.

Unlike the frequencies used by cellphone carriers — which pay billions for exclusive rights — the Citizens Broadband Radio is immediately available.

“It’s the budget version” of a broadband build-out, said Roger Entner, a telecommunications analyst at Recon Analytics. “It’s available and its cheap.”

The wireless industry has long sought a robust system for moving data at speeds fast enough to carry high-definition video and similar bandwidth hogs without hard-wired cables. Entner said the Citizens Broadband spectrum could dramatically improve service to remote areas with few customers or obstructions to radio waves.

But congested urban areas, where the signals must be shared by many users and somehow navigate through concrete, glass and steel, are tough.

“Everybody is working with the same economics and the same physics,” Entner said. “Physics works the same for Google as it does for everybody else.”

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon

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