As she is confronted by overwhelming obstacles in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale clicks her heels together and whispers “There’s no place like home” before being magically transported back to her bedroom in Kansas. For most of us, the mantra holds true — there really is no place like home — especially when home is Kansas City and ground zero for the firehose of bandwidth known as Google Fiber.
It’s been more than two years since Google announced Kansas City, chosen from more than 1,100 applicants, would be the first community where their ultra-high speed broadband network would be deployed … and the waiting has been difficult. Little by little, smaller municipalities have been included in the Google network, although most of them have yet to see deployment or installations.
Kansas City is a geographic oddity, one of the few metropolitan areas whose population is bisected by a state line. About half of Kansas City sits in Missouri, while the other half sits in the Sunflower state, a distinction that often holds back progress as state and local governments argue over change.
However, it’s worth noting that in the case of Google Fiber, one that truly mattered to geeks like me, the cities’ governments came together quickly to help persuade Google to choose Kansas City as the country’s gigabit Mecca. Not only was the government response correct, Kansas City was small enough to tackle first, but also had the right combination of unused and above-ground utilities, giving Google quick access for establishing a network of cables.
What’s more, the metro area has one of the highest rankings for app creator densities in the country, thanks to public and private entrepreneurial incubators. However, as with any startup, progress has been slow. Installations have only just begun rolling out in the past six months and they still haven’t announced they will be installing in my neighborhood (or fiberhood, as Google calls them).
The pricing for Google Fiber depends on your plan. Gigabit Internet packaged with a wide range of television channels, no data caps and a two year contract is $120 per month. If you choose to go Internet only, it’s $70 a month for “100 times existing broadband speeds”, no data caps a single year commitment. Both of these plans waive a $300 installation fee. Google offers a third option: free Internet. Granted, it’s only 5 Mbps down and one up, plus you to pay a $300 installation fee (can be spread out over 12 months), but I am charged very close to $100 a month by Time Warner for the same (5/1) speeds at my business.
The impending Google invasion has had a positive influence on those of us waiting for the possibility of installation. My current residential ISP, Time Warner, has nearly doubled my download speed at home for no additional cost. At the same time, they are displaying billboards around town and speaking to various news outlets telling me and other KC residents that no one is really interested in gigabit internet. (Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.)
AT&T, the other big provider in Kansas City hasn’t reacted as significantly locally, but in Austin where Google also announced the expansion of their fiber network, AT&T said they would build a competing gigabit fiber network.
The wait has not been without a healthy dose of fanfare. Last August, Google opened a Fiber store that showed off the hardware and talked about the experience of Google Fiber in the home. The store was filled with Google-branded, attractive young people who were eager to answer questions and show off a limited number of Web sites. (No, you couldn’t jump on their network.)
As installations began around town, I noticed the rainbow-clad Fiber bunny on car windows and yard signs encouraging neighbors to sign petitions to bring Google Fiber to their neighborhood. These were eventually replaced by professionally printed signs announcing the excitement of a home’s impending installation. It was both intoxicating and a little cultish.
Still, fed up with the horrible and inconsistent service, incompetent customer service, and high prices of my current provider, I found the lure of Google Fiber to be on the same emotional level as pure, unbridled geek lust. So, when one of my friend’s home got the call that Google Fiber would be installed, I cleared my calendar to head over and see if the promise lived up to the hype.
Once you are given an “installation ready” status, the appointment options come very quickly, usually with a crew arriving within 48-72 hours. Customers are told to expect installation to take around six hours, with the majority of that time being linked to figuring out how to bring the fiber cable into the house. Once inside the house, the fiber can hook up to devices across coaxial or ethernet cable, although the installation crew I spoke with said their preferred method is coaxial.
When I arrived at my friend’s house, the fiber cable was already in the house — a chore that took just 45 minutes — and the installation crew, made up of two guys, was just beginning to hook up the hardware. This installation covered Internet, which was a network box and a switch, and television, which was a storage box plus three television boxes. The equipment the installation crews use is capable of delivering service to 16-20 devices via a gigabit switch.
All told, the installation took just under three hours and both of the install techs were happy, polite, and more than patient to put up with lots of questions from me. I was told that wherever they have installed, it has become a bit of an event with friends and neighbors coming over to watch. Each crew is tasked with two installs a day, but usually they are able to knock out three. Internet-only installs go much more quickly than those with television.
“100 times faster than today’s broadband.” If that doesn’t get you drooling, I’m not sure what will. The advertised speeds are a gigabyte up and down, but the installers said the acceptable range was anything above 600 Mbps up and down, which is still pretty much incredible. Wireless speeds, of course, are going to be much lower and the expected speeds there are in the 40-100 Mbps range.
When the techs had the network all set up and running, we began to run speed tests. Our wired speeds using the official Google Fiber speed test were in the neighborhood of 820 Mbps down and 930 Mbps up. Wow! When run through speedtest.net, those numbers were mostly in line at 850 down, 730 up, but the wired computer we were on was pretty old, with an older network card. On the wireless network, download speeds were 68 down, 35 up, these numbers dropped a bit when running through Speedtest.net where we got 59 down, 14 up. In retrospect, the drop may have been tied to the default server the site was pinging. All of these numbers are consistent from other Google Fiber installations I have seen on Kansas City-related message boards.
To put the speed to the test, I uploaded a 310 MB video to YouTube. On the wireless Google Fiber network, with about 40 Mbps upload speed, the task took just over six minutes. Returning home to reality and my Time Warner wireless connection where I get around 0.5 Mbps up, the same video took just over fifty minutes to upload. Downloading songs from iTunes happened at a blazing, blistering pace and a quick check of torrent speeds downloaded a small-ish file at 5 Mbps.
These are significant differences, but in the day-to-day use like simply visiting Web sites, the speed difference isn’t anywhere near as apparent. After a week of use, my friend doesn’t really see a big change. However, there’s no buffering at all on YouTube and other video sites load quickly, which is fantastic, especially with certain ISPs throttling video streaming. *cough* But, again, the rub is in the rest of the Internet. Pretty much all other sites load about as quickly as her previous provider, Time Warner. Much of that is tied to the fact that, while Google Fiber is fast, it doesn’t mean the service at the other end (or in between) is going to be able to keep up with the gigabit ISP.
The television box is very small, smaller than a DVD box and not much thicker. Output allows for two choices: S-video or HDMI, so your television has to be relatively new. All of the television boxes are networked via a centralized storage box, which acts as a whole house DVR. The storage box holds a two terabyte drive, which will record up to eight shows at once and about 500 hours of HD content. Additionally, subscribers get one terabyte of cloud storage for photos, videos, music or anything they want to stream through the system.
Each television box is operated by a Bluetooth remote control, which is nice because it doesn’t require line-of-sight like IR remotes. However, it also means that a good number of users still have to retain their current remote for adjusting overall volume on their televisions, since many televisions are not Bluetooth ready. (Update: after a day of talking to Google Fiber tech support, they were able to find a way to make their old universal IR remote work on the Fiber TV boxes.)
The picture is very crisp and clear, like you’d expect from high definition delivery. But when streaming a show off the Internet or when running a speed test while watching television programming, the picture was occasionally choppy and pixelated. This was likely tied to the downloading site, as a streamed Netflix movie looked great.
The television interface has a ton of features. Like other providers, you can pause a show and then pick it up in another room. The onscreen guide carries a vertical line that shows the progress of a show and how close it is to being complete (a half-hour show that’s half done will show a line at the middle of its descriptive block in the guide). Additionally, there are bells and whistles like a display that shows the current weather (if you want to, you know, go outside), a cast & crew tab on movies that brings up an imdb-esque listing of those involved with the production, and some parental controls.
This particular installation included a free Nexus 7 tablet to show off the Google app for controlling the television. From anywhere in the world, you can set your DVR to record or search (via very nifty voice commands, as well) or watch certain channels. There’s an app for iOS tablets, too, but no free iPad.
It’s all very impressive. However, there are some things missing from the interface. While you can stream photos (and presumably video and music, we didn’t try these out) via the television interface, there is only a single other application on the guide: Netflix. One would think Google would have established other partnerships during the ramp-up to installation, but again, it’s a service that’s just getting started.
The other surprising omission is an in-guide browser. If you want to surf the Web during commercials, you had better find a laptop or similar device because you can’t do it on your TV. It seems a service built surrounding a fat Internet pipe would have found a way to browse on the television.
Google Fiber has a lot going for it and, above all else, lots of potential. While it is new, it is sure to have growing pains and problems as people try to get the service to work with a multitude of devices. And while the speed is readily apparent in some situations, it’s not in others. I’m sure that will change over time, however, it might be years before the Google Fiber is fully realized.
When there have been questions, Google Fiber customer service has been cheerful and happy. Emails have been replied to within 24 hours, at the latest – most of the time more quickly, and phone calls are a very positive experience with intelligent, respectful, and eager-to-please reps answering the calls. When they have been unable to solve a problem, they are quick to escalate and there hasn’t been a problem they’ve been unable to solve over the phone yet.
At the end of the day, Google Fiber is causing other ISPs to take notice that slow speeds and crummy customer service will no longer be tolerated and that is worth the price of admission alone. For far too long, we have been forced to put up with slow and inconsistent speeds at high prices … and couldn’t do anything about it. Everyone I’ve spoken to about getting Google Fiber says, unsolicitedly, that they were thrilled to dump AT&T or Time Warner and have gone on to talk about what the horrible experiences they had with their previous ISP/television provider.
Whether or not Google’s service ends up being better is yet to be seen, but there will surely be some bumps in the road along the way. Most importantly, we finally have a choice that doesn’t involve the lesser of two evils. Begone Time Warner, before somebody drops a house on you, too!