Will Google Fiber Challenge Comcast and CenturyLink in Salt Lake City?

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By Tim McElgunn

March 25— Google Fiber announced yesterday that it will deploy its fiber-to-the-home-based service in Salt Lake City. Google, Inc.’s broadband unit said in a blog post that it has completed its exploration phase—a combination of physical surveys and negotiations with the municipal government—and is starting to design its network.

But despite its very high profile as a pioneering gigabit network provider, Google Fiber has not yet made a significant dent in incumbents' subscriber counts. In cities where it markets actively—Austin, Kansas City, and Provo—the company had signed up approximately 30,000 video subscribers by the end of 2014, and it is unlikely that it will sign up many more than 100,000 additional TV and data subs by the end of this year. That would put it on par with Buckeye Cablesystem and GCI, both primarily rural tier 3 providers.

While its data subscriber count is undoubtedly significantly higher—the company sells both a $70 per month symmetrical 1 Gbps and a free-after-$300-installation 5/1 Mbps service—the company does not yet serve a meaningful percentage of the U.S. market due to the limited number of markets it serves and its limited footprint within those markets.

Gigabit Competition from Incumbents?

In Salt Lake City, it will be some time before incumbents CenturyLink, Inc. and Comcast Corp. see subscribers leaving for the new service. With the exception of Provo, Utah, where Google bought an existing FTTH provider's plant and needed only to refurbish parts of it, the lag between announcement and service sign-up for Google Fiber is typically on the order of 12 months.

And by the time Google Fiber is ready to launch service in the city, it appears competition will be significantly tougher than it is today.

A limited number of Salt Lake City residents and small businesses already have access to a gigabit service: CenturyLink has run fiber to a few multi-tenant buildings in the city. Outside of those buildings, the highest speed currently available to consumers and SMBs is Comcast's Metro Ethernet-delivered 500 Mbps service, which costs about $300 per month. But CenturyLink includes Salt Lake City in its plans to expand its gigabit service over the coming months. Comcast is also moving to field trials of 1 Gbps-capable DOCSIS 3.1 infrastructure, and is likely to deploy first in markets where competitors are trumpeting ultra-high speeds.

Salt Lake City Joins 18 Cities in Google Fiber ‘Design Phase.'

Google has also announced it has entered the design phase on its announced networks in 18 municipalities across the Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville and Raleigh-Durham metro areas. The company also includes Phoenix; Portland, Ore., San Antonio and San Jose on a map on its blog page as “Potential Fiber Cities.”

The design process typically includes both technical design and the operator's “Fiber Rally” process, in which the company identifies the areas of greatest demand for its gigabit Internet access and TV services. Those areas are given first priority in the company's build phase.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tim McElgunn in Cherry Hill, NJ at tmcelgunn@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bob Emeritz at bemeritz@bna.com