Olathe OKs deal to bring Google Fiber to southern Johnson County

03/19/2013 1:40 PM

03/21/2013 12:38 AM

Google Fiber, the much-hyped, barely launched Internet and TV service, is headed to Olathe.

The Olathe City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved an agreement paving the way for the fiberoptic network to carry Google’s fledgling super-fast Internet service to southern Johnson County.

The deal in many ways mirrors agreements made elsewhere in the Kansas City market. It could be a sign, albeit a weak one, that Google might try signing up customers in other corners of Johnson County.

Google Fiber will mean faster Internet service in Olathe homes, but it might not arrive quickly. Google is only slowly connecting neighborhoods now and has significant ground to cover before reaching Olathe.

Google said in a blog post that “we think that Fiber and widespread Internet access will help to create jobs, grow local businesses and make Olathe even stronger as it grows.”

On Twitter, the news was greeted mostly with excitement from people in Olathe and jealousy from Web surfers elsewhere.

“#GoogleFiber coming to Olathe, KS!” read one tweet. “Woooohooooo!!!”

Said another: “Are they coming to Shawnee too?”

The feeling was much the same in Olathe City Hall.

“We’re excited for what this means to our community, and we look forward to flipping the switch,” said Mayor Michael Copeland.

The deal gives Olathe 5 percent of gross receipts generated by Google selling the service in the Johnson County suburb. Other Google Fiber cities receive similar fees.

That agreement promises free 1-gigabit-per-second connections to up to four public facilities for up to 10 years, far fewer than promised in the two Kansas Citys. But a city official said those hookups would easily cover Olathe’s needs. If Google deploys a Wi-Fi network in Olathe, that wireless Internet access will be free to the public for at least five years.

The Olathe deal may avoid problems that arose elsewhere when cities had to extend expedited permitting and other promises made to Google to competitors such as Time Warner Cable and AT&T.

“It was very important for us to be able to spell out their responsibilities as clearly as possible,” said Ron Shaver, Olathe’s deputy city attorney. “We do not want to treat Google differently, or more favorably, than we would any other entity. We also want to make sure it’s a good value for our taxpayers.”

In short, the agreement holds Google to the same permitting process as other utilities.

Olathe chose not to expedite various permits, Shaver said, or promise to identify particular staff dedicated to answering Google’s questions the way other cities have.

“We’ll process permits,” he said, “as fast as we can process permits.”

The Internet search company has been careful not to say how far it might expand its service. It has said it wants to make an impact in the Kansas City market, but it has never promised that it would reach deep into the suburbs.

The California firm first announced it would launch Google Fiber in this market two years ago, promising hookups for Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan.

While it began home installations in October, only a handful of neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kan., have been able to tap into its lines.

At the low end, it has been offering relatively slow broadband free for seven years after customers pay $300 for installation. At the high end, for $120 a month under two-year contracts, it offers cable-like TV programming and Internet hookups capable of pushing data at rates of 1 gigabit per second.

Those top speeds offer downloads 100 times faster than most U.S. home service and uploads 1,000 times quicker than the norm.

Its move to Olathe is mildly surprising because the company has been intent on keeping costs down by keeping the service area geographically compact.

Beyond the two Kansas Citys, Google Fiber has made agreements to sell service only in the smaller northern Johnson County towns of Westwood, Westwood Hills and Mission Woods. It has not, for instance, cut a deal yet in the seemingly lucrative markets of Overland Park, Shawnee, Mission Hills or Leawood.

The Olathe deal is sure to spark speculation about whether Google will launch its service in more of Johnson County.

Google has aimed to concentrate its footprint to keep installation costs down. Skipping past Overland Park, for instance, would leave a sizable hole in its coverage.

Kristy Stallings, Overland Park’s deputy city manager, said she couldn’t say whether the city has been in talks with Google.

Informal talks between Olathe and Google Fiber started two years ago. More earnest negotiations took hold only in recent months.

“One of the questions we asked early on is if all the other jurisdictions between Olathe and Kansas City had to have this service in order for us to get it,” Shaver said. “We were very excited when we found out that didn’t have to be the case.”

For now, Olathe is by far the largest city in Johnson County lined up for the Google service.

Glen Friedman of the media and technology consulting firm Ideas & Solutions said it’s only logical that Google Fiber would expand in the market to reap the greatest return on the backbone of the network it is building.

“It’s weird to me that that would checkerboard it” by skipping Overland Park, he said.

At the same time, Friedman said the expansion into Olathe shows that Google Fiber is likely in Kansas City for the long term. His firm released the results of a survey in January showing strong interest in the new service.

Three in five people were interested in Google Fiber, and across 11 “brand attributes,” the Internet giant scored better than the other companies in the market selling TV programming and Internet access.

“Now,” Friedman said, “they have to deliver.”

Until Tuesday, Google Fiber cities were all in territory dominated by Time Warner Cable. With Olathe, it takes on Comcast. A Comcast spokeswoman declined to comment on Google’s arrival.

Making a deal with Olathe hardly means Google Fiber service there is imminent. In fact, Google’s blog post said it still has “a lot of planning and engineering work to do before we’re ready to bring Fiber to Olathe.” It will announce a construction schedule later.

The company’s plans elsewhere in the market have fallen behind schedule several times. By its latest reckoning, construction in a large, central swath of Kansas City and across Kansas City, Kan., will stretch to the end of this year. Then it will move to southern parts of Kansas City and areas of the city north of the Missouri River.

Google appears to be finding that wiring a community might take longer than it expected.

It was already behind schedule last summer. Milo Medin, the company’s vice president of access services, estimated broadly then that it might take four months to hook up the first 10 “fiberhoods” — Google-defined neighborhoods that average about 800 residences. Though Google Fiber installations began in October, work has begun in only seven “fiberhoods” and is not yet finished in any.

Medin only made his prediction when pressed and said at the time it would be difficult to gauge the speed of the rollout. He also said that the pace would pick up as Google’s contractor learned from experience and beefed up its crews.

So Johnson County residents might still be waiting a few years to switch to Google.

For those areas where enough people sign up indicating an interest in the service — Google calls the initial signup periods “rallies” — the company says it will come in for a single, limited period and string fiberoptic lines directly to homes.

Yet in two of its first Kansas City, Kan., neighborhoods, Google is giving a second chance to consumers who didn’t sign service contracts before their initial deadline.

Customers who decline installations during those special periods, Google had said previously, will not have a second chance to tap into the network later.

Olathe is now waiting for its residents to look over the Google offer.

“Olathe is a community that highly values technology and innovation,” the mayor said. “It’s a big part of what has made us successful.”

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