Mixed emotions about Google Fiber

I am by nature, profession, or something less definable, a cynic. I take a while to warmly endorse anything. Thus, unlike some in the tech space, I'm still wary about Google Fiber's ultimate promise.

This is not to say that I don't envy those 89 percent of the residents in Kansas City (Missouri and Kansas) who have been authenticated to get the service. Even in these tough times I would have found $10 in sofa change to put my name on the list for ultra-high-speed broadband and IP-based TV.

My cynicism kicks into overdrive, though, when I look at the history of these sorts of "competitive" cable-killing offerings, going all the way back to Bell Atlantic's (later to be Verizon's) FutureVision telcoTV venture in Toms River, N.J. Bell Atlantic threw scads of money at FutureVision; people in the town seemed to warm to it; it forced cable incumbent Adelphia to lower rates; and it went gently into that good dark night, never more to be seen or heard.

The comparison to Google Fiber is, at least to this cynical mind, inevitable. Both B.A. and Google have pockets so deep there are some who claim they're bottomless. Both have the determination to push hard on a complacent incumbent operator base. And both seem to have a radical network that will do the job--and an audience that's willing to take a flier on it.

Both, also, face the fact that building a new network and audience is not a task for the faint-hearted. B.A.'s successor, Verizon, has learned this with FiOS, where it has revised its gung-ho damn-the-torpedoes approach to be more like let's-not-go-where-no-man-has-gone-before when it comes to new markets.

FiOS still has more buzz than a honeybee nest in areas where it's not being built or available--such as my hometown of Millville, N.J.--so the cynic in me wonders if Google, despite its best intentions, will be able to complete the job it has at hand.

Complicating matters even further is the programming on which any pay TV service is based. Content providers must share their programming with everyone, so Google should be on a level playing field with incumbents AT&T U-verse and Time Warner Cable when it comes to basic and premium TV lineups. The market differentiator, however, is no longer the 87 channels that no one watches; it's the local channel that everyone wants, needs or demands.

The Philadelphia market shows that not everyone gets everything that's available on every service. DirecTV and Dish subscribers can't get Comcast Sports Net, which carries the increasingly less popular Phillies, maybe a little more exciting 76ers, probably locked out Flyers and Big Five basketball, among other regional sports. That means if you buy satellite service, you don't get to see the Phillies flounder or the Sixers soar, because those are Comcast properties and Comcast calls the shots. FiOS is a different story, but then you have to be able to get FiOS.

It's only fair to note--since Comcast would do so--that if you want to see Damages wind down, you can only do so on DirecTV, which also carries the popular NFL Direct Ticket.

But like politics, all sports is local, and Comcast holds a winning hand with the local sports franchises. Maybe that differentiator won't happen in K.C., or, if it does, the locals won't particularly care; I know I don't. But the possibility adds a level of uncertainty to widespread pay TV subscriber acquisition.

My cynicism is balanced by the possibility that Google Fiber will be everything it promises and more. That it will drive down prices for other K.C.-based services while it drives up speeds. That it will be so profitable and successful that it will expand to other communities (like Millville, N.J.) that are in the grasp of a single broadband purveyor.

Of course that balances right off with the fact that some "disadvantaged" areas in the K.C. market haven't made the grade to become fiberhoods. If FiOS is any measure, I'd probably guess that Millville is similarly disadvantaged and might not make the grade.

All of this is to say that my optimist side, buried deep beneath the cynic's veneer, is cheering for Google Fiber to succeed, but the cynic who lives on the surface is less sure that it will happen. --Jim

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