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VOL. 38 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 7, 2014

Luring Google Fiber might depend on NES lowering fees

By Hollie Deese

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Can Google afford Nashville? The tech giant wants to offer its superfast fiber network – 100 times faster than average broadband speeds – in Nashville and eight other metropolitan areas across the U.S., in addition to the three it already serves.

But one consideration could be cost.

Broadband companies are charged a per-pole lease fee by Nashville Electric Service, which owns about 83 percent, or 148,000, of Nashville’s 178,000 utility poles. NES’ fee is about $24 per pole. The national average is under $10.

“They want to know if we can work with them to get pole attachments and right of way use for them effectively, for which they want to pay market rates, which is as expected,” says Keith Durbin, Metro Nashville’s director of information technology.

For its part, NES is waiting to see what Google wants.

“We do not know any details on what would be required of NES as of yet,” says Laurie Parker, corporate communications supervisor for NES. “However, NES has a positive working relationship with the existing cable providers in the Nashville area, and we are excited about the possibility of working with Google.”

Google has begun to evaluate Nashville and the other proposed cities on its list to see if the expectations and capabilities of both parties match. And with so many players involved, there is no guarantee.

Durbin says Google is looking for a number of things from the city before it commits, including how well Metro can respond to the volume of various permits it would request, which would be considerable based on the build-out of the existing three Google Fiber cities, Austin, Kansas City and Provo.

“They will be looking at how well the government and those who own the right of way and those who have [utility] poles in the right of way are willing to work with them,” Durbin says. “There is nothing secret about this, and this is the way they worked in other places as well.

“So this is not a competition anymore. And if we can meet those things to their satisfaction, they will bring their service.”

Durbin says Metro Government is proactively working to put together documentation for Google, and the city will know by the end of the year if Nashville has been chosen.

“There are players such as NES who own a lot of the poles,” Durbin says. “Public Works owns traffic signs. So, there will be a lot of coordination, and it is just going to depend on how everyone is able to work together.”

NES follows FCC rules governing how broadband providers attach to poles, which requires them to allow broadband services to attach within 148 days of request, with an additional 60 days for a request involving a large number of poles.

Google also would also have to get a franchise agreement and pay a fee for use of public rights of way. In 2008, AT&T filed suit – and won – in order to be able to license entertainment statewide without having to purchase a franchise on a city-to-city or county-to-county basis like the cable companies have had to do.

“If I were Google, I would be trying to level that type of licensing,” says Eddie Hooper, director of carrier services for Resource Communication Group in Franklin.

“The big thing is permitting, regulations and getting approval from the state to move forward. Every time you get a right of way, you have to pay per pole, so it can get really, really expensive. The rights of way are the hard part, the expensive part that intertwines with the regulations and permitting. Any of those things can slow you down.”

Topography and geology are other factors, but not major ones if Google secures leases for existing poles.

It seems unlikely, Hooper says, that Google would ditch the poles to dig underground for home service.

“That would probably disqualify Nashville because it is all rock below the surface,” Hooper says.

Durbin says the city is ready for fiber and open to even more competition, no matter what happens with Google.

“We would love the opportunity to have multiple vendors,” Durbin says. “One would be phenomenal, whether it is Google or someone who is currently offering cable service here. I just think this service is very important for Nashville. It shows people that we are not some backwater city, and that we have a true tech community and we are serious about our technology.

“And it positions us really well for the future, which is why technology firms and others who are thinking broadly view that as a big benefit. We are serious about interest in this, no matter who gives it to us.”

One of the existing providers, Comcast, is not moving into fiber yet and is secure with its current position in Nashville.

“I think it is safe to say that Comcast has a long history of serving the Nashville marketplace with a full suite of video, voice and data products and will continue to do so, says Alex Horwitz, Regional Vice President of Public Relations for Comcast.

“We have raised speeds 12 times in the last 12 years, and we will continue to raise speeds accordingly to stay competitive in the marketplace.”

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