Google Fiber Will Use Untapped Infrastructure to Offer Service in San Francisco

Some cities have installed underground fiber networks that no one is using.

Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

We’ve all heard about (and lusted after) Google’s gigabit Internet service called Fiber. It’s only available in about 10 cities so far, because even bringing it to those areas has been very labor-intensive and presumably expensive for Google. The difficulty of installing a brand-new fiber network from scratch is exactly what keeps most companies from expanding into new regions, leaving customers with few choices for where to buy their Internet and cable service. If Fiber wants to grow more quickly, it can’t just wait for Google to build new infrastructure, so the service is finding other ways to spread.

On Wednesday, Google announced that it is working to offer Fiber services in San Francisco. It’s a challenging city to build in because of geographic and infrastructure constraints, so instead of breaking ground itself, Google is going to use existing, unused fiber. This type of resource is often called “dark fiber.” It is laid by a company or government because of an easy or worthwhile opportunity, often without definite plans for use. It’s hard to get an exact number, but the Los Angeles Times reported last year that there are at least 10,000 miles of dark cable laid in the U.S. (A big city might need a few hundred miles of fiber.)

In some cases, this fiber stays dark or its use is heavily restricted because of agreements limiting a local government’s ability to compete with a big cable company. Though Google won’t give any details about its Fiber deal yet and won’t even say who owns the dark fiber the company plans to use, it’s well-known that the city government in San Francisco owns and operates an extensive dark fiber network that brings connectivity to government buildings, schools, medical centers, and affordable housing.

For years the city has intermittently considered generating revenue off of the fiber, but other projects have served as distractions. In the mid-2000s, Google and Earthlink wanted to create citywide Wi-Fi access in San Francisco without charging taxpayers anything. But friction and red tape ultimately doomed the project, and Google executives were frustrated.

Michael Slinger, Fiber’s director of business operations, wrote in a blog post on Wednesday, “We’re trying something different in our latest Fiber city—San Francisco—where we’ll bring service to some apartments, condos, and affordable housing properties, using existing fiber.”

And San Francisco isn’t the only place where Fiber is trying out a new approach. On Monday, Google announced that it would bring Fiber to Huntsville, Alabama, by leasing off of the city’s community broadband network. Google Fiber expansion director Jill Szuchmacher wrote:

In order to bring Fiber to more people, we’ve taken different approaches in different places. In Provo, Utah, our Google Fiber service is being delivered over a network we purchased from the city. In Atlanta, Georgia, we’re both constructing our own network, and using existing fiber to provide Google Fiber to some apartment buildings. And now … we’ll be working with a muni-owned network to bring our high speed service to Huntsville.

Like Comcast or Time Warner, Google is a large company with extensive resources, but unlike those companies, Google is entering Fiber markets as a competitor. Relying completely on Google to increase competition around the country isn’t practical and ultimately wouldn’t promote a diverse marketplace either. But if Google is one of many forces pushing for more regional competition in the cable industry, things may actually improve.