“Keep Austin Weird.” It’s the proud slogan of the Texas capital, and it wears it well, especially with its eclectic mix of culture, history and technology. Pretty soon, Austin will have one more reason to be proud: it’ll be one of a few cities in America to carry Google Fiber, the search giant’s experimental foray as a broadband provider. “It is, as always, step by step,” Google Fiber head of project management Adam Smith tells me. Smith is sitting across from me in Austin’s new Google Fiber space, hesitantly explaining how Google isn’t very experienced at this whole “internet provider” thing it’s been doing. On paper, Austin is the third city to support Google’s internet service, but reality is less black and white. “Provo was an acquisition,” Smith reminds me. “This is really the second organic city… …it’s sort of also saying that this is also new for us.”
Smith is cautious to characterize Google Fiber as a future competitor for Comcast or AT&T, but he’s still very optimistic about the fledgling service’s future. “There’s a learning curve here,” he says, “and we’re ready to go into the next set of cities.” He immediately told me that he won’t be able to announce which cities are in that next set, of course, but they’ll undoubtedly have to wait awhile for deployment: Google Fiber rollouts are notoriously slow. Both of its organic cities were announced over a year before customers could even sign up, and even then customers were (and are) corralled into “Fiberhood” groups that need to reach specific subscription goals before the service is actually made available. It takes time to build infrastructure, after all.
Google Fiber’s expansion may be deliberately slow, but Smith says it’s settling into a place that gives his team greater control of the user experience. “The other half of a challenge is always an opportunity,” he says. “By having control of all the hardware and software, now we’re getting into this more iterative phase of being able to push code and make changes more rapidly to create a more responsive product.”
Right now, these revisions are focused on improving internet and TV service — specifically WiFi connectivity. “I think the stat is that 70-percent of the devices that connect at home connect through WiFi,” Smith says. “We spend an insane amount of engineering time just trying to improve and optimize that experience.” Still, Smith assures me that Fiber is still growing, but his lips are sealed for the next few months. “We’re getting to scale. We’re starting to go to more cities — that’s going to be a big part of what we do.”
In the meantime, Google is focusing primarily on making sure its core services are excellent. Users have asked about adding new packages and features (such as an internet+ HBO Go package or Google Voice VoIP service), but Smith says there are no plans to announce beyond Fiber’s current offerings. “We are interested in exploring new ways for people to purchase video,” he says, “but our core offering is our live TV service, which we think is an awesome service.” He calls me back to HBO Go as an example, which was recently made available to Google Fiber TV customers.
When I asked Smith about why Google had been silent on the issue of Net Neutrality for so long, considering its own budding ISP, I was cut off by his PR handler: Google doesn’t have anything new to say on the subject. Good thing it said it was in favor of a free and open internet then, I guess.
Primarily, Smith sees Fiber as exactly what it is: a developing business for Google, but he’s also visibly excited about the potential gigabit creates for entrepreneurs “We’re here, we’re digging out streets and putting in fiber. We have real customers that we’re serving… …but it also has the added benefit of being able to advance the web.” Doing that can be tricky. Smith tells me that it’s not enough to simply put gigabit internet in the hands of people it needs to be somewhere it will make a difference.
That may be part of why Austin is the latest city to support the network. “It’s a great town for Fiber,” he told me. “There’s a lot of creativity. A lot of technology, a lot of film. I think when you start to build a center of gravity around these kinds of businesses and opportunity… …entrepreneurs invest in that.” Smith admits that he wasn’t on the Fiber team when Austin was picked to be Google’s next gigabit city, but describes the town as a qualitative fit. Austin, by its own declaration, is weird. Hopefully, that’s a local synonym for innovative.