1. Business

Google Fiber seen as boon to business as Tampa prepares for digital giant

Google's Regional Expansion Lead, Brien Bell, shares information about Google Fiber during a news conference to announce Google Fiber's exploration to expand into the Tampa region on Wednesday. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Google's Regional Expansion Lead, Brien Bell, shares information about Google Fiber during a news conference to announce Google Fiber's exploration to expand into the Tampa region on Wednesday. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Published Nov. 2, 2015

TAMPA — Filmmakers who came to Tampa this spring to shoot scenes for The Infiltrator, a movie about the 1980s international drug trade starring Bryan Cranston, wanted to transmit their digital raw footage to Los Angeles each day.

But local film officials said it might as well have been the era the film depicts when producers sought ways to send that enormous data stream.

Available Internet was just too slow.

With the announcement last week that Google is considering bringing its ultra-fast Internet service, Google Fiber, to the city, business and political leaders say the possibility of gigabit-per-second Internet speed will allow the city to boost business recruitment and spur innovation in data-intensive industries like film.

"This is exactly the type of infrastructure we need to compete with … regions around the globe," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.

For Dale Gordon, executive director at Tampa Hillsborough Film & Digital Media Commission, it makes it all the easier to help lure big-budget film production and set the city apart from other competitors without a high-speed Web connection.

She said makers of The Infiltrator sought help from her team to find a way to transmit digital footage to L.A. where it would be edited. The few local firms with private bandwidth to get the job done were booked and could not help.

"I'm not sure how they got the footage to Los Angeles," Gordon said. "So something like Google Fiber is going to be a welcome tool" in the future.

But beyond the impact in business, high-speed Internet may be ushering in an era when access to the Web becomes more like a utility residents would not consider living without.

That becomes especially on point given a Google Fiber offering in cities where it now is signing up subscribers. It provides 5 megabit Internet service with no monthly fee after a one-time $300 installation charge.

In those cities, Google's gigabit service costs $70 and an additional $60 for TV with a channel line-up that, depending on your cable package, is generally similar to channels offered by other TV providers.

"Internet access is becoming very similar to other utilities such as in water, sewer, transportation, power," said Dixon Holmes, deputy mayor over economic development in Provo, Utah, which has had Google Fiber since late 2012. "These are just things that need to be part of people's everyday life."

Of course, the headache triggered when the Internet is cut off for nonpayment isn't the brain-pounding migraine caused by the disruption of water or garbage service.

Teenagers, however, may disagree.

• • •

To be sure, this isn't just about Google. In markets where the Mountain View, Calif., tech giant has dipped its digital toes in the water, other providers have quickly stepped up their offerings for consumers, increasing Internet speeds and lowering prices.

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Hillsborough County's two Internet providers, Bright House and Verizon, won't comment about Google's announcement. And the companies that may soon absorb them have not indicated what they may do. A Bright House merger with Charter Communications is pending, and Frontier Communications is buying Verizon's FIOS assets in Florida.

Google currently provides its gigabit service in just Kansas City, Austin, Texas and Provo. It plans to bring service to six other cities, and as in Tampa, it is studying the possibility in eight others.

Google announced it was going to work with Tampa officials to explore from an engineering, design and technical perspective whether it is feasible to bring its Internet service to the city. In other cities, that process has taken up to a year.

Google insists it is no certainty it will come to Tampa.

But Russell Haupert, Tampa's chief technology officer, said he sees no engineering or technical barriers to Google coming, though he said he did not want to minimize the complexity and difficulty of building a fiber optic network from scratch.

Haupert is scheduled to meet with Google representatives Wednesday for their first formal get-together. He plans to bring a tiny memory card containing digitized city records with extensive information Google will need — the location of utility lines and poles, rights of way, the location of county assets.

The very fact that those records will be on a device the size of a thumbnail speaks volumes about the way the world has been altered by technology. A few years ago, Haupert might have downloaded the records to a DVD or a few compact disks.

A decade ago, he might have wheeled an overflowing filing cabinet into the room.

Just how much it will cost the city in terms of staff time and associated costs to help Google with what will be large requests for data and extensive permitting requirements is not yet clear, Haupert said.

Google isn't asking the city for any subsidy, he said, nor will Tampa be engaged in construction to aid the company.

"It's not like they're asking for a free stadium," he joked. "It's Google. It's not like they have to worry about money."

For the record: Google's parent company, Alphabet, is sitting on about $70 billion in cash andfearned a net profit of $3.98 billion in the third quarter.

• • •

While the sea change of faster Internet may be a boon to business, don't expect home life to go unaffected for those willing to sign up for faster service whoever offers it. That may happen in ways many have not imagined.

For starters, Google told subscribers in Kansas City earlier this year it was experimenting with targeted TV advertising in the same way it now does with its Web search engine.

Google says it will target advertising based on a subscriber's viewing habits and location. So people who live across the street from one another might end up seeing different commercials even if they are viewing the same program. Viewers can opt out.

And just signing up for service would be different. Today, someone moving into the city simply calls their local Internet or cable TV provider to get hooked up. A technician comes out to the house to do the necessary work.

Google won't link a neighborhood to service until a threshold percentage of neighbors indicate a willingness to do so, too. That minimum percentage, according to the Wall Street Journal, varies between 5 to 25 percent.

In cities that have Google, that can lead to people wandering their neighborhoods, knocking on doors like trick-or-treaters, extolling the benefits of gigabit service and urging neighbors to sign up.

"That's something people aren't used to," said Holmes, Provo's deputy mayor.

Internet companies that offer gigabit service boast that once someone signs up, they are quickly hooked by what has been coined the "Infobahn" after Germany's notoriously speedy highway system, the Autobahn.

How fast is this information superhighway?

Google says users can stream high-definition movies without buffering. A high-definition, two-hour movie can be downloaded in 25 seconds, according to Fastmetrics, a San Francisco Internet provider. A 45-minute TV show can be downloaded in 1.7 seconds, a five-minute video in two-tenths of a second.

Two-tenths of a second?

While it is easy to argue a high tech firm has a need for speed, does a family need it at home to watch cat videos on YouTube, send emails or order pizza online? Is there really a need for an Internet connection nearly 100 times faster than what is now found in most U.S. homes?

The answer, technology proponents argue, is an unequivocal "yes."

"Go ask anybody in 1990 about the Internet and how important it is to them and they'd say, 'What are you talking about?' Nobody even knew what the Internet was," said Hunter Newby, CEO of a New York company, Allied Fiber, that builds and operates fiber optic networks. "I'd like to see any of those people who question whether or not they need gigabit Internet to give up their iPhone. Did you know you needed it before using it?"

But some have thrown cold water on the hoopla, emphasizing that Google is one ship on a rising sea and blazing Internet would come even without the company.

As a report by the research firm MoffettNathanson said in March, Google was still a very small player in some of the markets where it is already signing up customers.

"To Cable & Satellite investors, Google Fiber is a bit like Ebola: very scary and something to be taken seriously … but the numbers are very small, it gets more press attention than it deserves and it ultimately doesn't pose much of a risk (here in the U.S. at least,)" the report said.

Contact William R. Levesque at Follow @Times_Levesque.


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