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Google Fiber's broadband dreams aren't making cable TV any better

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Fiber TV doesn't yet live up to those amazing internet speeds

Would you uproot your life for an internet connection? Google says people are doing exactly that; they're picking up and moving to Kansas City or Provo to gain access to Google Fiber, the company's ultra-fast gigabit broadband and TV service. As of this week, you can add Austin to the tiny list of cities where Fiber is being offered. On Wednesday, Google invited media outlets including The Verge and local press to the Fiber showroom in downtown Austin.

Open seven days a week to the Austin public, the Fiber space is filled with Google representatives who can explain the service's benefits to curious residents. Many of them flowed in and out during my time there. You can also hop on Fiber-powered Wi-Fi while visiting for a taste of what Google the ISP can do.

Internet worth moving for

For its Wednesday press event, Google showed off some improved hardware and provided an update on which Austin neighborhoods (or "Fiberhoods" as Google calls them) had rallied enough local support and signups to qualify for Fiber installations. Some have already cleared the bar, and other areas are working to get there. And you've only got one shot. Google's own website publicly says "we don't currently have plans to return to fiberhoods once their sign-up periods have ended." So if neighbors don't share your enthusiasm, your chance might be blown. (Google did ultimately give sections of Kansas City more than one opportunity to get in, so there can be exceptions.)

Fiber won't be available city-wide anytime soon; right now it's limited to Austin's south and southeast sections. More areas will open up in the coming months, but Adam Smith, who heads up product management for Fiber, hinted it could be multiple years before "the gig" is supercharging internet in most Austin homes. And it's not Google's fault. Building out the network isn't easy or fast. It requires complex planning, and often calls for a significant amount of groundwork and construction — even with Google doing its best to harness existing infrastructure. And everything's slow going, which is a brutal pace in a society that increasingly seeks instant gratification and same-day deliveries. You want Google Fiber right now, just like everyone wanted FiOS, but unless you're willing to book a flight, get used to waiting.

Google Fiber Austin van artwork
Google hired a local artist to design artwork that's on every Fiber installation van.

"I don't know how AT&T sees the world evolving."

Does any person really need that type of speed? It's been asked many times, and right now many Austin residents are likely wondering what Google Fiber and the gig can do for them that a top-level DOCSIS 3.0 cable connection can't. There's not a simple or compelling argument to be made aside from the obvious one: it's faster.

Smith likes to hammer on the point that Google Fiber offers a symmetric connection; you get the same blistering upload speeds that you pull down. But other providers like Verizon are starting to head in that direction. AT&T has its own gigabit internet network running in Austin; my Uber driver said he signed up because he couldn't endure the wait for Fiber. From Smith's perspective, Google welcomes the competition. "This is all so new, both for us and for them, in that when you really think about the power of the web, the web comes when there’s lots of people operating," he says. "I don’t know how AT&T sees the world evolving. But how we see it evolving, we want to make sure we’re building a product that dovetails with that nicely as we go."

To be clear, classifying Google as any kind of "competitor" to Comcast is absurd if you're looking at it with a level head. But Comcast loves to tell the FCC that Fiber poses some type of threat; the cable behemoth has frequently cited Fiber's existence as proof that there's healthy broadband competition in America. Don't be fooled: there may be "competition" in all of three cities where Google Fiber is now offered, but that's not moving the needle anywhere.

Toppling Comcast obviously isn't Google's goal, so what is? If you believe Smith, the thing that makes his company most excited is simply "getting lots of people on gigabit internet." It sounds noble, but remember that Google can count on reaping ad profits from every Fiber customer, in addition to their subscription fee. Not all of those people will be tech savvy or understand Fiber's full potential; a big and growing part of Google's mission is closing the digital divide and bringing internet to those who've never even had a web connection before. Google's working to make Fiber available to the 4,300 people living in Austin's public housing units, and it's pledged to make similar investments in other Fiberhoods. But as The Daily Dot recently reported, not everyone's convinced the company is taking the best approach.

"You're going to see creativity unleashed."

In Kansas City and Provo, there are already consumers and businesses placing their bet on Fiber. Smith says one obvious use case that's emerged is video work. Fiber's gigabit connection can make a world of difference for content businesses who constantly upload globs of data to the cloud every day. But who else might benefit? The app-makers of tomorrow. "As more people are on gigabit internet, you’re going to see creativity unleashed," says Smith. "You’re going to see more applications developed. You’re going to see applications that are gigabit-specific developed. Things we don’t know about yet."

The notion of an app requiring a fiber-grade connection might seem ludicrous now. But put Fiber and competing products in more cities (Google is eyeing a host of new markets) and someone may be willing to take the chance. Imagine backing up your entire PC in mere minutes or streaming the latest breakthrough video games without a hitch. It's all genuinely exciting, which probably explains why some people would even raise the idea of dropping everything and relocating to find Fiber. Smith insists that Google has regularly talked with people who've made the move. It sounds crazy to most, but maybe not so bizarre in the eyes of an entrepreneur trying to get a startup off the ground.


Adam Smith Google Fiber
Google's Adam Smith and Sarthak Ray demonstrate Google Fiber's internet and TV capabilities.

Does Google really care about TV?

But when I turn my focus to the TV side of Fiber, everything's a bit less wondrous and inspired. The sense of anticipation for what the future holds rapidly falls flat. Google is pushing the envelope with Fiber as an internet service, but as a cable provider, the company seems content with delivering an experience that's par for the course. Google Fiber's TV interface is simple, clean, and, for the most part, fluid, but it shares nothing in common with the modern software marvel that is Android Lollipop, nor does it borrow from Google's Material Design language. It doesn't look as refreshing as webOS running on an LG TV, and it doesn't have the dead simplicity of Roku's TV interface. It looks like a cable box UI.

To be fair, it checks off all the major things consumers expect from a cable box: tons of channels, DVR (with 2TB of storage space), video on-demand, and niceties like cast and plot details for whatever's on. And yes, it's got Netflix built in. But search is pretty stupid in places; type in "Liam" and you'll have to scroll down four or five pages to find Liam Neeson's name. I'd maybe expect that from Time Warner Cable. From Google, the world's leader in search, it's almost insulting. No offense, Andrew Liam Pringle; you're just not the revenge seeker I was looking for.

Google Fiber search

Use it for five minutes, and you'll immediately realize Fiber TV could be so much more. The immediate and pressing problem is a glaring lack of cohesion with Google's other products and services. Some of it's obvious stuff. You can't stream music from your Google Play library; media has to be uploaded directly to the Fiber Network Box in your home before it can be accessed on the TV. That probably takes no time at all with Fiber's connection speeds, but it's insane that such a thing should even be necessary. The same goes for movies and TV. Like other cable companies, Fiber's got its own video-on-demand platform, but don't expect to watch your Google Play Movies purchases on the Fiber box. Inexplicably, you'll need a Chromecast or Nexus Player to do that. Huh? These products are all under the Google umbrella, so why do they seem so far apart? It's a disconnect that needs repairing.

It doesn't feel like Google is trying with TV

Google Fiber TV stock 2040

It shouldn't be so hard to dream bigger or aim higher. There's a weather widget, but no Google Now integration to remind you of your appointments as you're readying for work each morning. Very little about watching Fiber feels interactive or connected. Want to know what other people in your Fiberhood are watching right now? No can do. Your TV can't yet notify you when a call's coming in to your Android phone; it also won't display incoming Hangouts messages. Video chat's totally absent, a surprising omission when dealing with broadband this fast. And for a company that's developed such a robust, quick, and accurate voice search, it's disappointing to see voice queries limited to the Google Fiber mobile app. There's no mic on Fiber's otherwise nice, backlit Bluetooth remote, nor on the TV box itself. As it turns out, some people don't mind talking to their Xbox. I'm sure they'd give calling out the "OK Google" command a try if it made for an easier way of finding the latest episode of Scandal.

Google has all the pieces to make cable TV amazing

Likewise, whereas some companies like TiVo are making progress in letting you take DVR recordings on the road, Google's not there yet. Fiber certainly has the speed to make it happen, but for now you still need to be on your home Wi-Fi network to watch DVR content on a smartphone or tablet. This one's understandable since Google is still new to this game and has relatively little power when dealing with TV networks, but the others show a lack of innovation and willingness to try new things in the living room. Fiber needs to be usable by a huge variety of consumers, yes, but that doesn't excuse Google from experimenting. None of it sounds impossible or impractical.

When I raise some of these points with Smith and Sarthak Ray, one of Google Fiber's product managers, they each nod and acknowledge that the possibilities are definitely there. "We're fortunate to be part of Google," says Smith. "It's natural that over time we're going to look for ways to integrate those experiences into the Fiber experience." Thankfully those improvements should progress faster than Fiber's journey into new cities. Smith and Ray say that nearly all of Google Fiber's hardware development now happens in-house, giving the company full control over its software roadmap and destiny as a cable company. There are some interesting things happening now; controlling a TV with your Android Wear watch feels pretty weird and cool. Give us more of that.

Google Fiber's Adam Smith
Adam Smith, Google Fiber's director of global content and platforms.

Huge industry forces like Comcast (with its X2 cloud platform) and Dish, rumored to be launching its own internet TV service, aren't the laggards they once were. Somehow we've entered a world where the TV business is starting to move at a brisker pace. Those companies have also been at it decades longer than Google, so it's not entirely fair to ding Mountain View too badly this early.

And remember that many people will likely subscribe to Google Fiber's $70 internet-only option, especially as more web TV services get off the ground. Maybe that's the long-term plan. Perhaps Google's doing the bare minimum to keep cable customers comfortable while ultimately counting on HBO, CBS, Sony, and others to obliterate the market as we know it 10 years down the line. Then it won't even have to worry about being cable company Google anymore. But think hard: do you honestly trust Dish or Verizon to build something that you love interacting with every day? You shouldn't. Android TV shows that Google's got some of the right ideas, but they're nowhere to be found in Fiber today.

If TVs are meant to be dumb, the boxes we attach to them need to start getting brilliant. With Apple still not prepared to lead that charge, why shouldn't it be Google? Google Fiber is still super small. It's very new, and most people can't have it, yet other ISPs are paying close attention to Google's every move. If Google sets its sights on improving the concept of what cable TV should be, we'd all be better off for it. Obviously the internet half of Fiber is the priority, and that's not going to change. Google makes its money from people using the internet every day. But it's also got every piece necessary to reinvent cable TV in a way that, when combined with those heavenly internet speeds, really could convince people to start packing for the nearest Fiberhood.