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Google to explore bringing its fiber optic high-speed Internet service to Tampa

Google is dipping its toes into Tampa's internet and TV market and said today it will explore bringing its ultra-fast internet service, Google Fiber, to the city. Google said the service offers internet speeds of a gigabit per second of data transfer on a fiber optic network - fast enough to download a movie in seconds. [Associated Press]
Published Oct. 29, 2015

TAMPA — Google announced Wednesday it may bring its ultra-fast Internet service, Google Fiber, to Tampa, a prospect that could eventually allow customers of all providers to drink from a fire hose of data after long sipping from a faucet.

If Google Fiber does eventually come to Tampa — the company insists it isn't a certainty — analysts said it will undoubtedly disrupt the existing Internet and TV marketplace and benefit consumers by pressuring other providers to offer faster, cheaper service.

Google said the service offers Internet speeds of a gigabit per second of data transfer on a fiber optic network — fast enough to download a movie in seconds. That is nearly 100 times faster that the U.S. average for residential customers.

But Google said it will do it at a fraction of the cost. In other markets, Google charges $70 monthly for its Internet-only service and a plan with both gigabit Internet and TV for $130 monthly with channels generally comparable to other companies.

"We want to help usher in the next chapter of what the web will look like," said Jill Szuchmacher, director of expansion for Google Fiber. The service would trigger "the same kind of innovation we saw when we all as Americans got to step up from dial-up to broadband. We're excited to usher in this next chapter. … Competition does work."

Mayor Bob Buckhorn called the announcement a great day for Tampa and said Google Fiber would give business in the city an edge enjoyed by just a small handful of American cities.

"If we're going to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem here, we've got to have the ability to move data," Buckhorn said. "And our ability to move data gives us a competitive advantage. … We're going to compete hard to win this."

Google's announcement names only Tampa. But in other U.S. cities where Google Fiber is available such as Kansas City, the network extends to a greater metro area that includes some adjoining communities.

Google is silent on the question of whether it might bring service to other parts of Hillsborough, or even Pinellas and the North Suncoast.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based technology giant made the announcement with Buckhorn at the University of Tampa's John P. Lowth Entrepreneurship Center. The news had been a closely guarded secret among city leaders who were first approached by Google two weeks ago.

Google is making its first Internet foray into Florida, and also announced it will begin the same exploration in Jacksonville and Oklahoma City.

Does this mean Google Fiber is definitely coming to Tampa? Far from it, said Google. The technology behemoth said it must first work with Tampa officials to see what would need to be done from a technical and engineering perspective to expand the network to Tampa.

It is possible, Google said, that it will ultimately decide Tampa poses knotty hurdles that make the city unfeasible. The company said the exploration process has taken up to a year in other cities.

But since 2012 when Google Fiber was rolled out, the company has yet to cut any of the 15 U.S. cities where it has made similar announcements.

Right now, residents and businesses in just three cities can order Google Fiber — Provo, Utah, Kansas City and Austin. But Google is planning on offering the service in six other cities: Charlotte, N.C.; Nashville; San Antonio, Texas; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Salt Lake City; and Atlanta.

Google also is exploring bringing service to six other cities in addition to those announced Wednesday.

Google is providing Tampa with a check list that asks for a wide range of information necessary before it starts laying fiber optics. That includes detailed information on permitting and access issues tied to existing Internet and cable TV infrastructure such as underground conduits and utility poles.

Given the size of the network — thousands of miles of fiber optic cable would be laid — Google said advanced planning is necessary so city officials are not overwhelmed and work can be done efficiently and smoothly.

"We need to understand what it would take to build in Tampa," said Szuchmacher. "It's all very in the weeds kind of technical and engineering detail. But those are the kinds of things that we really need to understand. … It can be disruptive for a community that is not ready for it."

Google isn't offering faster speeds through any leap in the technology. Instead, it uses existing technology in a way other providers currently don't in most markets.

"There's plenty of fiber optic cable in America already," the company said in pamphlet about Google Fiber. "But very little of it goes directly to homes — so this means your Internet signal travels at Autobahn speeds for most of its journey, but then slows down as it gets near your house."

Google Fiber could be a game-changer in Tampa where two providers, Verizon and Bright House, currently provide Internet at speeds at least half as fast as Google with most of their customers far closer to the national average of 11.9 megabits per second.

In cities where Google has introduced its service, competitors quickly reacted with cheaper, speedier plans.

Consider Austin, Texas, one of three cities where Google Fiber already is available. Four Austin providers now offer gigabit Internet speeds, Google said.

Google also challenges existing providers by offering a basic Internet plan with speeds of just 5 megabits for downloads. It charges a one-time $300 installation fee but then provides service at no monthly cost.

Telecommunications analyst Jeff Kagan said Verizon and Bright House will probably respond to the competition and beef up their own offerings. That, he said, has certainly happened elsewhere.

A response may not come from Verizon or Bright House per se. That is because Charter Communications announced in May it plans a merger with Bright House and Time Warner Cable. And earlier this year, Frontier Communications said it was buying the regional Internet and cable TV assets of Verizon FIOS, including Verizon's Florida business.

"I think we're going to see more choices from providers in most of these major metro areas" that Google is targeting, Kagan said. "As the years go by, consumers want more and more services, and they need more and more speed."

He said he once thought Google's foray into Internet was just a way a company built around a search engine could make a point to traditional providers about online speeds. The nation's Internet speed ranks 20th in the world.

"Google may have started with that in mind," Kagan said. "But they're actually turning it into a business."

Don't expect the data ceiling to top out at a gigabit. Chattanooga, Tenn., this week announced it would offer 10-gigabit Internet service in a project that isn't tied to Google. That city already offers residents a 1-gigabit plan.

The timing of Wednesday's announcement was a bit awkward for Google.

Google Fiber suffered an outage in Kansas City on Tuesday night during the World Series game between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals. Google apologized but didn't provide a reason for the outage, which may not have affected all customers.

The glitch was fixed within an hour for most customers, Google said.

Buckhorn thinks his own family would benefit from faster Internet at home, especially his daughters, age 10 and 14, who frequently spend time on social media websites.

How fast is his Internet speed at home? Buckhorn joked, "That's hard to tell because my daughters are on Instagram every night, all night practically."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Robert Trigaux contributed to this report. Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com. Follow @Times_Levesque.

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