In 2015, after months of speculation and behind-the-scenes lobbying, Google Fiber announced it was coming to North Carolina. The news was meet with fanfare.
Since launching in 2010, the upstart internet provider had chosen which markets to enter deliberately, desiring cities with a density of young, tech-savvy residents who would recognize the advantages a fiber optic connection offered. North Carolinians had an appetite for an internet alternative, and the search giant’s promise of connection speeds 100 times faster than traditional broadband was tantalizing.
Charlotte and the Triangle vied to be among the next “Fiber cities,” and each was selected. Then-Gov. Pat McCrory predicted Google Fiber would transform both cities and beyond.
“This puts us, especially our major metro areas, in line with the Austin, Texas, and the Silicon Valley and the Bostons and New Yorks,” he said. “And it is very crucial that we get this type of service, not only to the metro areas but in the future our goal is to the rest of the state.”
Google marked its arrival with an advertising blitz, including T-shifts with the hashtag #FiberIsComing below a dotted map of the state.
Tripp Triplett remembers the T-shirts and general hype surrounding Google Fiber’s entrance. A high school teacher in Zebulon, Triplett was eager to try the new internet provider after years of not-totally-satisfying Spectrum service. But when he entered his address online, the company informed him its services didn’t extend to his home yet. Six years later, Triplett gets the same message.
“I’m not mad enough to like cancel my Gmail account, but it is frustrating it hasn’t spread here,” he said.
Today, more than 150,000 households across Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Mooresville, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Garner can subscribe to Google Fiber. But many others, both within these cities and in surrounding Triangle communities, can’t.
According to BroadbandNow, a group that compiles internet service provider data, Google Fiber is available to 15.4% of residents in Raleigh, 12.3% in Chapel Hill, and 6.7% in Durham. The rates are much higher in Cary (75.7%) and Morrisville (81.6%).
BroadbandNow pulls data from the Federal Communications Commission, which releases data on a 16-month delay. The group says it corrects for this lag with proprietary data sent by internet service providers.
Google Fiber spokesperson Jess George, called BroadbandNow’s data “out of date,” but would not share what the company believes are more accurate coverage percentages. George did say Google Fiber has revved up local construction in the past year and a half.
Last week, Google Fiber announced plans to enter five new states and start expanding locally into Apex. “Our goal in Apex, as with all of the municipalities in North Carolina where we are constructing, is to serve as much of the community as possible,” George said.
But as Google Fiber looks to grow its Triangle footprint, many wonder if they’ll get the chance to connect.
Drill, place and pull
People get the internet in multiple ways. Some in rural areas use fixed wireless. Others use satellite. As for wired options that run directly into homes, people might use digital subscriber lines (DSL), coaxial cables, or fiber.
A digital subscriber line, or DSL, has the lowest carrying capacity of the three and is thus the slowest. Cables, operated by providers like Spectrum and Xfinity, have greater carry capacity, but not as much as fiber.
“Fiber is the most future-proof of all the technology coming to the house,” said Mark Johnson, a broadband consultant with more than 25 years of experience in the industry. “I think people are looking for alternatives to the incumbent providers who routinely are among the lowest rank customer satisfaction of any businesses.”
But building out fiber networks is timely and costly. Johnson said direct-to-home lines run underground in the Triangle and while DSL and cable companies have existing lines into most neighborhoods, fiber providers must construct networks from scratch.
Johnson said that when Triangle officials were courting Google Fiber, they amended local construction permit regulations to make it easier for fiber providers to build. But permitting is just one step.
There’s drilling. Providers then place empty pipes into the earth before pulling though the fiber wire. And repeat. Neighbor complaints about the construction aren’t uncommon, though some Triangle residents say they’d welcome the disruption if it meant faster service.
Where Google Fiber is and isn’t
Google, like any internet provider, has been strategic in where it has built: Cary and Morrisville have received extensive coverage; cities like Durham not so much.
“I would guess you’re probably going to find they’re in neighborhoods where they think everybody is going to take the service,” said Johnson, who uses Google Fiber at his home in Morrisville. “And those are probably wealthier neighborhoods.”
In 2016, Google Fiber stopped entering new markets, a move Johnson believes was influenced by the project’s high costs. Despite this pause, Google said it would keep growing in the Triangle, yet large pockets of the region remained unserved today.
One area ZIP code Google Fiber doesn’t reach is 27704, a fact Dequan Bradley discovered after moving to this North Durham neighborhood six months ago. A certified nursing assistant and part-time DJ and podcaster, Bradley relies on strong internet. But while friends have told him Google Fiber’s enhanced speed was worth the cost: a baseline 1-gigabit package for $70 a month or 2-gig service for $100, he doesn’t have the option.
“I even tried to get my mom to switch (to Google Fiber) as she currently has Spectrum and wasn’t satisfied with it,” he said. “Neither of us are in an area to get it yet. There are apartments around on the higher end that have it, but not around anything I can afford.”
The median household income for 27704 is around $10,000 below that of Durham overall and well under the median household incomes in Cary and Morrisville.
New fiber expansion and stronger competition
Google Fiber is renewing its expansion. This spring, the internet provider entered Iowa, its first new state since 2016. Last week, it said it aims to enter five more states while sustaining new construction in existing markets.
“The last year and a half has been huge for Google Fiber expansion nationally, and especially in the Triangle, where we added 70% more households to our service area and increased our customers by close to 40%,” George said, adding “we are expanding just as quickly this year.”
She said new areas include downtown Raleigh, South Raleigh, East Raleigh, and South Durham.
And even residents who can’t subscribe may have been impacted by Google Fiber. Mark Johnson said the service prompted traditional providers like Spectrum to boost their carrying capacities and helped stimulate other local fiber providers like AT&T and a local fiber service called Ting.
“I think Google’s success influenced Ting to expand into more communities,” Johnson said. “And AT&T was accelerated by Google.”
Johnson said Google Fiber has established a strong “backbone” of fiber networks in the Triangle. But some in the area wish that backbone was more robust.
This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.
This story was originally published August 18, 2022 12:22 PM.
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