MOUNTAIN VIEW — Google’s plan to bring ultrahigh-speed Internet service to the Bay Area has run into a decidedly nontech hurdle: utility poles.
To roll out Google Fiber in five Silicon Valley cities, the tech giant needs access to the poles for stringing up fiber cable. But in several cities a who’s who of Google competitors are standing in the way.
The outcome of the pole fight is likely to have a profound effect on which communities get Google Fiber and which don’t.
“The infrastructure needs to be mostly above ground,” said MoffettNathanson Research analyst Craig Moffett. “You can’t proceed … if you don’t have pole access.”
Similar battles have played out in other cities across the nation, slowing Google’s multibillion-dollar program while competitors push forward with their own gigabit-speed offerings. Gigabit speed is 1,000 megabits per second — more than 30 times faster than the average residential download speed in California, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Mountain View-based Google has been fighting before the California Public Utilities Commission for the right to use publicly and privately owned utility poles because burying fiber cables is expensive and in places impossible. ATT and the cable TV association representing Comcast and Time Warner Cable have told state regulators that Google has no such right. And Google contends that a group that controls many Bay Area utility poles, and includes Google competitors as members, also has been blocking access to the poles.
In San Francisco, the only California city where Google has committed to providing blazing fast Internet, the company will lease a small fiber network, eliminating the pole problem — for now. In the five other Silicon Valley cities where Google is working with officials on plans to install its own fiber, pole access appears secure in Palo Alto and Santa Clara, but shaky in San Jose, Mountain View and Sunnyvale. Expansion beyond the small initial project in San Francisco — which bested San Jose in the race to be the first in the state to get Google Fiber — appears problematic.
“Gaining access in a timely manner bears on Google Fiber’s decisions whether to build new networks,” Google lawyer Austin Schlick wrote in a Feb. 5 letter to the utilities commission.
The Northern California Joint Pole Association has refused to grant membership to Google, according to Schlick’s letter, and membership is required for access to the group’s poles. Among the association’s members are ATT and Comcast, both expanding their own gigabit-speed Internet services.
Although cities including Oakland, Walnut Creek and Concord aggressively pursued Google’s high-speed Internet service after it was announced in 2010, the company has not chosen any East Bay cities.
An array of laws gives telecommunications companies and cable-TV firms the right to use publicly and privately owned utility poles, typically with per-pole fees. Google sells a TV-Internet Google Fiber package and claims status as a cable TV company. The PUC agrees.
“Cable television corporations provide video programming to subscribers for a fee over wire. Google is providing video to subscribers for a fee over wires. Therefore, Google is operating as a cable television corporation,” commission spokesperson Constance Gordon said.
But the California Cable Telecommunications Association, which represents a number of Google competitors, including Comcast and Time Warner Cable, says the commission’s analysis falls short.
“While the CPUC has looked at the definition of a cable television corporation under state law, it did not consider whether Google Fiber complies with the federal Cable Act — it does not,” cable association President Carolyn McIntyre said in a March 3 email to the PUC.
“Google Fiber wants the benefits of a regulated cable corporation without the associated regulatory burdens,” she wrote.
Time Warner Cable declined to comment on the pole conflict. ATT has also argued before state regulators that Google isn’t a cable-TV company. But ATT has a 2014 agreement with Google that allows the Internet giant to access ATT poles anywhere in the U.S., and the companies have specific licensing agreements covering Palo Alto, San Jose, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and Mountain View, said ATT spokesperson Dan Conway.
While Google has cut deals with ATT and more recently with PGE for pole access, the company has been unable to secure poles in many areas because the poles it needs are controlled by other parties.
In San Jose, where Google and city officials are actively planning for citywide fiber rollout, the pole association controls most utility poles and only members can access those, according to Michael Liw, the city’s deputy director of public works. Google has ball-parked costs for its planned three-year, citywide Google Fiber buildout at more than $1 billion, said city spokesman David Vossbrink.
Sunnyvale and Google have signed a preliminary agreement on Google Fiber service. However, the pole association owns the majority of utility poles in Sunnyvale, according to city documents and the issue of access has not been resolved.
In Mountain View, nearly all poles are owned by PGE, or shared between PGE and a communications company. “While our agreement with Google provides access to PGE poles, we have discussed with Google it needs to contact the communications utility for access to jointly owned poles,” said PGE spokesperson Tamar Sarkissian.
However, in Palo Alto, the pole association controls only 5 percent of the utility poles. Some 90 percent are jointly owned by the city and ATT. “No problems to report,” city spokesperson Catherine Elvert said, regarding the city’s work with the two companies on Google Fiber pole access. The council may act on a plan this year, she said.
Santa Clara controls nearly all its utility poles. Google has completed most of the preliminary work needed before deciding whether it will commit to providing Google Fiber in Santa Clara, said Larry Owens, customer services manager for the city’s utility, Silicon Valley Power.
A Google spokesperson said the firm was “working very closely” with the utilities commission and local utility companies on agreements needed to build Google Fiber networks in the Bay Area. In San Francisco, a rollout beyond that planned for a limited number of apartments, condos and affordable-housing units would probably put Google at odds with the pole association, unless the group and the company come to an agreement. The pole group, which declined to comment on the Google Fiber issue, controls about half San Francisco’s poles, according to city records.
Contact Ethan Baron at 408-920-5011 or follow him at Twitter.com/ethanbaron.