Most readers have probably heard by now that Google Fiber is leaving Louisville because of failures with their fiber network. They are giving customers two months of free service and sending them back to the incumbent ISPs in the city. The company used a construction technique called micro-trenching where they cut a tiny slit in the road, one inch wide and few inches deep to carry the fiber. Only a year after construction the fiber is popping out of the micro-trenches all over the city.
Everybody I’ve talked to is guessing that it’s a simple case of ice heaving. While a micro-trench is sealed, it’s likely that small amounts of moisture seep into the sealed micro-trench and freezes when it gets cold. The first freeze would create tiny cracks, and with each subsequent freeze the cracks would get a little larger until the trench finally fills up with water, fully freezes and ejects the fill material. The only way to stop this would be to find a permanent seal that never lets in moisture. That sounds like a tall task in a city like Louisville that might freeze and thaw practically every night during the winter.
Nobody other than AT&T or Charter can be happy about this. The reason that Google Fiber elected to use micro-trenching is that both big ISPs fought tooth and nail to block Google Fiber from putting fiber on the utility poles in the city. The AT&T suit was resolved in Google’s favor, with the Charter one is still in court. Perhaps Google Fiber should have just waited out the lawsuits – but the business pressure was there to get something done. Unfortunately, the big ISPs are being rewarded for their intransigence.
One obvious lesson learned is not to launch a new network using an untried and untested construction technique. In this case, the micro-trenches didn’t just fail, they failed spectacularly, in the worst way imaginable. Google Fiber says the only fix for the problem would be to build the network again from scratch, which makes no financial sense.
Certainly, the whole industry is going to now be extremely leery about micro-trenching, but there is a larger lesson to be learned from this. For example, I’ve heard from several small ISPs who are ready to leap into the 5G game and build networks using millimeter wave radios installed on poles. This is every bit a new and untested technology like micro-trenching. I’m not predicting that anybody pursuing that business plan will fail – but I can assuredly promise that they will run into unanticipated problems.
Over my career, I can’t think of a single example where an ISP that took a chance on a cutting-edge technology didn’t have big problems – and some of those problems were just as catastrophic as what Google Fiber just ran into. For example, I can remember half a dozen companies that tried to deploy broadband networks using the LMDS spectrum. I remember one case where the radios literally never worked and the venture lost their $2 million investment. I remember several others where the radios had glitches that caused major customer outages and were largely a market disaster.
One thing that I’ve seen over and over is that telecom vendors take shortcuts. When they introduce a new technology they are under extreme pressure to get it to market and drive new revenues. Ideally, a vendor would hold small field trials of new technology for a few years to work out the bugs. But if a vendor finds an ISP willing to take a chance on a beta technology, they are happy to let the customers of that ISP be the real guinea pigs for the technology, and for the ISP to take the hit for the ensuing problems.
I can cite similar stories for the first generation of other technologies including the first generation of DSL, WiFi mesh networks, PON fiber-to-the-home and IPTV. The companies that were the first pioneers deploying these technologies had costly and sometimes deadly problems. So perhaps the lesson learned is that pioneers pay a price. I’m sure that this failure of micro-trenching will result in changing or abandoning the technique. Perhaps we’ll learn to not use micro-trenches in certain climates. Or perhaps they’ll find a way to seal the micro-trenches against humidity. But none of those future solutions will make up for Google Fiber’s spectacular failure.
The real victims of this situation are the households in Louisville who had changed to Google Fiber – and everybody else in the City. Because of Google Fiber’s lower prices, both Charter and AT&T lowered prices everywhere in the city. You can bet it’s not going to take long to get the market back to full prices. Any customers crawling back to the incumbents from Google Fiber can probably expect to pay full price immediately – there is no real incentive to give them a low-price deal. As a whole, every household in the City is going to be spending $10 or $20 more per month for broadband – which is a significant penalty on the local economy.