Internet service Google Fibers pulls service from Louisville because of challenges in the market that disrupted customer service.
Brittney Jackson, Louisville Courier Journal
Google Fiber’s sudden announcement that it would cancel its high-speed fiber network service in Louisville and retreat from the market was a big blow to a community looking to brand itself as innovative and tech-friendly.
For residents, small business owners and economic development advocates, the fact that Google Fiber picked Louisville two years ago for its 12th “fiber city” — and pulled out while still installing lines — raised the potential for rates to tick up with fewer competitors to serve customers.
Google Fiber officials dropped the news in a blog post Thursday, fresh off an upbeat company earnings report. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and others tasked with leading the administration’s innovation efforts offered little comment.
Louisville Metro spokesman Joe Lord said Friday the city and company officials would meet soon to discuss details of the pullout. Unanswered are questions about what happens to the lines already installed under streets, and who will repair trenches gouged in the street. In some locations, cable has popped up in roadways.
The network was extended to parts of the Highlands, Strathmoor, Newburg and the Portland area, places also served by AT&T and Spectrum, the former Time Warner network.
Residents last summer complained to the company and to city officials at meetings about the condition of their streets and rights of way. But the company also had many satisfied customers, now unhappy about losing the signal speed and the price, about $70 a month for a powerful 1 Gigabit-per-second connection.
An email request for comment sent to Grace Simrall, Louisville Metro’s chief of civic innovation and technology, received no response by late Friday afternoon. Simrall was busy and not available, Lord said.
Neither Google Fiber officials nor a Nashville public relations firm handling communications for the company returned emails and calls for additional information Friday.
Google Fiber officials wrote that they encountered “technical challenges in Louisville that have been disruptive to residents and caused service issues for our customers. We’re not living up to the high standards we set for ourselves, or the standards we’ve demonstrated in other Google Fiber cities.”
In a short Q&A on its website, the company said the withdrawal from Louisville won’t affect other fiber cities. It wasn’t clear, without specifics from the city, how much taxpayer money went to attract the company and to assist its launch in Louisville more than two years ago.
But there’s no question that Fischer and economic development advocates eagerly embraced Google Fiber, touting it as a key part of a $5.4 million proposal to expand the city’s ultra-fast internet access under a larger public-private partnership called KentuckyWired.
The Metro Council got on board, passing a “One Touch, Make Ready” ordinance in 2016 to give internet service providers the leeway to install and move existing companies’ equipment on utility poles to boost their networks.
AT&T sued in federal court, and lost after a judge ruled in August 2017 that the city has a right to control its public rights of way. (A similar suit is now underway in Nashville.) Louisville spent more than $383,000 on contract lawyers to defend the city, according to a WDRB report.
Earlier in the summer of 2017, a group affiliated with the Koch brothers’ powerful political network led an online campaign, urging Louisville taxpayers to reject the city’s plans to spend public money on the fiber network, arguing that governments shouldn’t subsidize private enterprises.
Fischer fired back in a tweet: “Tell your council member to back #KyWired and stop the Kochs from meddling in Louisville’s progress” after the Courier Journal reported the Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers Protection Alliance had launched an online ad campaign.
The city’s office of innovation also urged residents to reject the wealthy, small-government Kochs by supporting the city’s plans.
David Williams, president of the nonpartisan group, defended the campaign nearly two years ago, saying cities shouldn’t subsidize internet service providers, such as Google Fiber.
On Friday, Williams acknowledged it was tempting to take a “victory lap” over the company’s pullout. But, he said, “taxpayer money was spent that will never be recovered. … This is a lesson for other cities as they consider projects like this.
“With the deployment of 5G wireless and the new 10G plan from the cable companies, there is even less reason for government broadband projects.”
Chip Baltimore, a former Iowa state representative and senior fellow with the alliance, added that the less Louisville spent on the deal, the better.
A coalition of governments in rural Minnesota invested $45 million raised through government bonds in a high-speed internet network, hoping to spur new economic development. But it went under after four years, Baltimore said, and the equipment was sold off recently for pennies on the dollar, about $8 million.
If it’s challenging for powerful companies like Google to navigate in a changing tech landscape, he said, municipalities have no business “trying to compete in this environment.”
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