Blog Post

How It Feels to Have Been Passed Over by Google

Updated: Chip Rosenthal headed the grass roots effort to bring Google’s (s goog) gigabit fiber network to Austin, and he says the Texas capital was on the short list of cities that received a site visit and were in the final rounds. Unfortunately for Austin (and me since I’d be happy to plug into a fiber-to-the-home network) Google passed over the city and chose Kansas City, Kan. instead. Rosenthal, who is one of seven commissioners on the City of Austin’s Technology and Telecommunications Commission (a strictly advisory body), thinks it’s because Texas is one of four states that forbids municipalities from getting involved in building networks. And North Carolina is in the middle of approving barriers to municipal broadband deployment this week.

“Austin caught their eye for all the right reasons, and we had support at the highest levels with the involvement of the mayor and the city manager, but given the Texas limitations on municipalities getting involved in network, there was only so far we could go,” Rosenthal said. “So I look at the Texas Legislature, because they really put us in a box with regard to Google, and every response the city gave had to be measured within that box.”

Obviously, Rosenthal doesn’t know the exact reason Google chose Kansas City, Kan. — maybe the Google folks liked the Kansas City barbecue better — but it may be significant that Kansas City straddles two states, one with a law making it hard for municipalities to build networks and one side that actually has its own municipal network. In addition to outright bans, three states have de facto bans and 11 have various barriers to getting municipal networks passed.

This isn’t the first time having an anti-municipal network law on the books has irked Austin. Its municipally-owned power providers Austin Energy had wanted to build out more fiber and a more interactive smart grid, but it couldn’t provide broadband services to homes under the Texas law. So the utility had to use an unlicensed wireless network and its own fiber core for its smart meter deployment. Rosenthal is still curious about what motivated Google, speculating that having a municipally-owned utility might have played a role in Austin and Kansas City making it so far.

We’ve covered how Google fiber might become an asset in the smart grid (GigaOM Pro sub. req’d), and such an application would certainly bring additional benefits to the community outside of faster movie downloads — which some people assume broadband is for. However, Rosenthal is hopeful Google might continue its fiber expansion, or, because so many people responded to the call for better broadband, it might be a wakeup call to the state legislature. “I think a lot of people thought broadband was this ‘inside baseball’ topic, but this demonstrated to local officials that broadband is an issue theat resonates with the public,” Rosenthal said.

I, like Craig Settles, hope the same thing happens on a national level. We need someone or some organization to take the small section of the National Broadband Plan that argues for Congress to take action to eliminate the states’ anti-muni network laws with a federal law making it okay for communities to deploy network. Not every community will choose to do so, but they should at least have the choice.

11 Responses to “How It Feels to Have Been Passed Over by Google”

  1. I sense sarcasm. Let me continue it. Google’s lame attempt at buying my vote for public access to public resources by sending me a free laptop is little more than a publicity stunt. Who will provide a level of customer support and innovation that Comcast and Time-Warner are known for once all I get is reliable bandwidth provided by cables laid along public right-of-ways. You cant buy my support by providing superior products and services. I am much more interested in my elected representatives getting free fishing trips and great tickets to sporting events.

  2. Yeah Brett, Google hates independent ISPs so much it is building a next-generation network that any of them can use because that will really show them. Open access networks, along the lines of what Google is building, are the best opportunity for ISPs in the future and may break the duopoly we are currently stuck with.

  3. Stacey, while I’d love to have Gbps broadband fiber to my home, I respectfully disagree with your conclusion. We don’t need more cases of Congress overriding State law on things not specifically related to the powers enumerated in the Constitution (see Amendment 10). If Texans, and other states, want municipalities to be able to provide broadband service, they can do it through the state legislature. Personally, while I’m definitely for more broadband, I’d also want to understand the Texas legislature’s reasoning on disallowing municipal broadband before I pushed for a change. Also, why doesn’t Google provide the service itself as a provider? Why does it have to be owned by the municipality?

    • Google has no interest in running the network service when there are others it feels are capable of the task. In the column I wrote which Stacey mentions above, I list several ways Google wins in the relationship. Google has shown it not supports municipalities as network operators, but also regional telcos and service providers. When Google announced their pilot project in Calif, they turned that over to a local provider to run.

      As for why Texas disallowed muni networks, don’t follow the rhetoric they used to pass the bill, but follow the money. As in N. Carolina, the legislators writing those anti-muni network bills and current heads of House and Senate count Time Warner and CentryLink among their biggest contributors. And last year, and outgoing NC state senator admitted on TV that he let Time Warner lobbyists write last year’s anti-muni net bill. Follow the money.

      • Dave Roberts

        Replying months late, but this was linked back in another GigaOm article…

        Okay, I get that the incumbents wanted to disallow it and I would agree with you that is a problem. I’m not sure why that would make it okay for the feds to override state law on this, though. If we have a state problem, let’s fix it at the state level.

    • Sean Stokes

      The problem with your logic is that the state legislators that have imposed anti municipal entry laws do not actually reflect the will of the people, but the will of the large incumbents. In almost every case where anti municipal entry laws have been adopted the incumbents have coopted the legislative process. In states where there are barriers to municipal entry there is no evidence to suggest that the majority of the residents actually support such barriers. Texas is perfect example of this, in 1995 on the eve of the adoption of the federal Telecommunications Act, which purported to open up all markets to competition by any entity, Texas adopted a sweeping prohibition on municipal entry into telecommunications at the behest of SBC (now AT&T). The Texas legislature provided almost no rationale for this decision, but it was pretty clear that, among other things, SBC (headquartered at the time in San Antonio) wanted to stop the municipal utilities of San Antonio and Austen from entering into competition, or facilitating completion by anyone else, against SBC. SBC then went on as one of the key parties arguing for the Texas law to be upheld against a federal challenge by the City of Abilene, Texas. In pushing for additional restrictions on municipal broadband in Texas in 2005, SBC and company couched their rhetoric in Orwellian speak of “level playing field” and philosophical arguments of the unfairness of the public sector competing against the private sector, when of course it was actually just plain old incumbent protection against anyone else. The same tired arguments and tactics are now being brought out again in NC and SC, and sadly are gaining traction with legislatures that are often predisposed to such arguments, or worse, too lazy or greedy to ascertain the true will of the people.

      • Dave Roberts

        Sean, I’m coming back to this months later, after seeing a back-link in a more recent article.

        With respect, the problem with your counter-logic is that the fed has not right to stick its nose into state business. If there is a state-level corruption problem (and there may be — I don’t know enough about the specific issue), then the state needs to deal with it. Your assertion relies on three false assumptions: (1) the feds have the right to intercede, and (2) that the feds are not corrupt when the state is, and (3) that the feds will somehow come to the right conclusion when the state did not. I merely submit that the feds have no fundamental right to intercede in a state matter of this nature, that the feds are just as corruptible by special interests as the states are (see the net neutrality debate, for instance), and that there is no guarantee that they will make the right decision. If taking the decision out of the hands of the municipality was wrong for the state to do, its doubly wrong for the feds to do.

        Again, I’m not arguing that what the state did was right or that it shouldn’t be changed. I honestly don’t know enough about it. I’m merely arguing for the correct process and jurisdiction.

  4. bgurley

    Stacy, I couldn’t agree more. The use of the term “information-superhighway” is appropriate in this context. Over the past 200 years, municipalities have been a part of planning for ports, railroad tracks and depots, and true highways, because these transportation paths have a huge impact on the city’s economic growth, and therefore citizen livelihood. For the next 50 years, having an amazing core communications infrastructure is that new key transportation path.

    Here is the problem. The incumbent carriers are really, really, really good at lobbying and donations. I suspect it may be their #1 core competitive advantage (not kidding on this). Do you think that all of these local state congressmen really have anti-muni networks on their top 5 agenda all by themselves? Have you ever heard a candidate campaign on the platform of stopping the unfettered sprawl of city owned communication networks? This isn’t even on most citizens radar, and if it was, they would be supportive, not against.

    This is the work of back-room deals and checks handed to the heads of the committees that pass these obnoxious bills. Find the politician that introduced the legislation, check their donation list, and you will find your favorite large telco incumbent as one of their top donors. It’s guaranteed.

    • But aren’t campaign donations and political contributions protected-speech (according to the Supreme Court)…? Until that gets overturned, we’ll only get tid-bit corruption trials and every quarter-century a Jack Abramoff-style fiasco…but 99% of it will still be legal and ongoing, I think.