What's Behind the Slow Rollout of Google Fiber?

One of the few places you can see Google Fiber's services are at a store in the Gulch.

In January 2015, the news that Google was bringing its high-speed fiber-optic gigabit internet network — Google Fiber — to Nashville was hailed as another notch on our booming city’s belt. Celebratory press conferences were held, and free T-shirts were distributed to eager would-be Google Fiber customers.

But a year-and-a-half later, Google Fiber is available in just four buildings in the urban core — condominiums and apartments — and at the Google Fiber storefront in the Gulch. And the decidedly slow speed of the high-speed rollout is at the heart of a fight coming to the Metro Council that will bring together three communications giants, the city’s most prominent and connected lobbyists, and labor interests, in what looks to be a bitter fight. 

“Just because you spell your name with eight different colors doesn’t mean you can’t play by the rules that everybody else has to fucking play by,” says one operative, venting about Google’s reputation for wooing local officials in various cities into accommodating the company.

But first you have to understand some things about telephone poles. The thousands of poles that stand around the city, most of which are owned by Nashville Electric Service, are arranged with power on top and communications equipment in a line below that. In Nashville, this means NES equipment pushes electricity up top, while broadly speaking, gear from Comcast and AT&T — whether for home phone, cable or internet service — operates below. 

Enter Google Fiber. Because Nashville largely sits on a massive bed of limestone rock, running cable underground is, for the most part, not a viable option. That means Google has to join its new friends in the industry on the poles, through a process known as Make Ready. In a typical scenario, that involves Google — or any other new company trying to enter the market or get on a particular pole — notifying NES, which will then notify each telecom company that it needs to send a crew to the pole — one after another — to move their equipment and accommodate the new party. The process can take months, even if contractually mandated time frames are followed. Google Fiber officials and operatives working on their behalf suggest that’s not always the case. 

So they’re asking Nashville to change how the process works, pushing legislation known as One Touch Make Ready. The ordinance, which will be sponsored by East Nashville Metro Councilman Anthony Davis and was scheduled to be filed this week, would allow new communications providers to perform all the required work in the Make Ready process themselves — meaning they would be moving equipment owned by competitors — provided they use a contractor approved by the pole owner. 

“By embracing a one-touch make ready policy, Nashville is taking a significant step to bringing faster, better broadband to its residents,” says Amol Naik, Google Fiber’s Southeast region head of public policy. “Such policies can simplify and expedite a big infrastructure effort like Google Fiber, reducing community disruption and promoting public safety.” 

Google, like its competitors, is not short on resources for such a push. The Ingram Group has represented Google at the courthouse since the company arrived in Nashville and, more recently, Google brought on DVL Seigenthaler for public relations work. The pitch, as one might expect from Google, paints One Touch Make Ready as the forward-thinking, efficient solution for an outdated process, representing the type of streamlining that would make Nashville more attractive to companies looking to enter the market in the future. Google’s competitors, which have responded to Google Fiber by offering their own ultra-high-speed options, don’t necessarily agree. 

“We believe that the appropriate next step would be to conduct a meeting of the stakeholders — including AT&T, Comcast, Google Fiber, NES and Public Works — to review the make-ready and permit process and discuss areas for improvement,” says Sara Jo Walker, a Southern regional spokesperson for Comcast. “This should be accomplished prior to any proposed legislation.”

Comcast, the city’s dominant cable provider, is represented by the man who is perhaps Metro’s dominant lobbyist: James Weaver, of Waller Lansden. Just last week, Weaver sent a letter to a Google Fiber official — as well as NES — detailing damage done to Comcast equipment by Google Fiber contractors during the Make Ready process, demanding that Google Fiber stop any work involving Comcast equipment and threatening legal action if the company failed to comply. The errors made by Google Fiber contractors, Weaver writes in the letter, validate Comcast’s concerns about allowing contractors other than their own to handle their equipment. 

But the real fight — the real “eye-scratching,” as one insider puts it — is likely to be between Google Fiber and AT&T. While Comcast uses a combination of its own workers and contractors to do Make Ready work, and Google uses all contractors, AT&T uses union labor — workers who might lose work under a One Touch Make Ready policy. 

“While we have not seen the proposed ordinance, we are concerned that a make-ready ordinance would interfere with our contractual commitment to have our skilled employees represented by the Communications Workers of America perform make-ready work on our behalf,” says AT&T Tennessee spokesperson Joe Burgan. “Beyond that, we have serious concerns with other companies being allowed to perform work on our facilities without providing us notice, which could put service reliability and public safety at risk in some circumstances.  Additionally, jurisdiction to regulate pole attachments rests with the FCC, and municipalities have no authority under federal or state law to enact the ordinance being proposed here.”

AT&T, the nation’s largest employer of full-time union-represented labor, according to Burgan, has shown a willingness to take the fight on this issue to the next level. After Louisville passed similar legislation, the company filed suit against Louisville’s Metro government in federal court. (That case is ongoing.) For the council fight, they’ve hired Mike Turner as a lobbyist, the former Democratic state representative from Nashville who has strong ties to local labor — a community that can really turn out for a public hearing.

Council members have been hearing about the issue for some time now, although North Nashville Councilman Freddie O’Connell tells the Scene his interactions with lobbyists so far have been “light touch.” But the signal coming from all sides suggests it might not stay that way for long. 

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