Over the past five years, Google Fiber has laid its high-speed Internet in a handful of cities and pledged to come to several more. But now it has bigger ambitions: It is working on a plan to beam wireless broadband directly into homes.
If Google can figure out how to make the technology work, that would reverberate across the broadband industry, since it would solve the expensive "last mile" problem that broadband companies usually tackle by stringing a web of wires directly into homes.
And solving that problem would be a big deal, because it would give Google's parent, Alphabet, which runs Fiber, a plausible path to build out a nationwide network that could go head to head with broadband incumbents like AT&T, Verizon, Charter and Comcast.
In an interview with Re/code, Access CEO Craig Barratt, who oversees Fiber, said the company is working on connecting wireless towers to existing fiber lines, and that it is "experimenting with a number of different wireless technologies" to make that happen. It's the first time Barratt or anyone at Alphabet has publicly talked about their interest in wireless.
They're not the only ones. Aereo founder Chet Kanojia says he wants to develop a similar system at his new company, Starry, and has promised to start testing it in Boston this summer. And yesterday Facebook announced an initiative to experiment with wireless Internet.
But Facebook says it doesn't want to build or operate the wireless networks itself. Alphabet does. Barratt says it's part of his strategy to help Access evolve from an experiment into a "real business."
Barratt, who previously ran the wireless chipset maker Atheros, joined Google in 2013 and took over the Access division inside the search giant shortly thereafter. He's one of a small group of recent Google hires to have joined Alphabet CEO Larry Page's trusted inner circle, and until now he hasn't spoken to the press.
Barratt is an engineering whiz, but not a big talker. He was cagey about specific strategies, timelines and costs for Access and Fiber, its most expensive project. Barratt wouldn't say just how far Alphabet is willing to go with its expansion, nor how much it's willing to spend to get there.
But feel free to read between the lines, and assume that Barratt wants to make something really big — which could mean that many Americans could have a new option for super-fast Internet.
Our conversation is below, edited a bit for clarity and brevity.
Mark Bergen: It has been eight months since the Alphabet reorg. How has Access changed? What can you do now that you couldn't before?
Craig Barratt: The first thing that hasn't really changed is the focus on technology and innovation — and really solving big problems to create breakthroughs. What Alphabet has changed for me and my organization is having more of a focus on the business opportunities around those technologies.
Access has several different projects that seem unrelated from the outside. How do those projects fit together?
All of the initiatives and technologies are really meant to further our overall vision, which is really to create abundant and ubiquitous networks. While Fiber is the most visible of those business, all of those technologies that we're working on have the goal of trying to create networks that can provide better services to more people at better costs. All of those technologies roll up into this combined vision of creating more abundant services.
You have extensive background in wireless. And there's tons of speculation and some indicators — a bid for spectrum in Kansas and some millimeter wave testing — that Access has big wireless plans. What are you working on?
At you've noted, we are experimenting with a number of different wireless technologies. One of the things that is intriguing about wireless is that it allows you reach houses and users that are in lower density settings — where fiber becomes too expensive. So providing fixed wireless services using some of the technologies we think are ways of accelerating our deployments.
We think, over time, there will be a sort of heterogeneous mix of technologies that we can use, depending upon the type of problem we're trying to solve. But I want to make it clear that our focus on wireless technologies is really around fixed — so providing fixed wireless broadband.
For many people, Wall Street in particular, Fiber is still considered a moonshot science experiment — not something you're taking seriously. Are they right?s
We're really transitioning from our earlier work, which was more of an experiment, to a real business.
In some Fiber cities, you've really threatened existing ISPs — like Louisville, where AT&T is suing the city to keep you out. Are you seriously considering taking on the incumbents in the industry?
We're trying to figure out how to remove barriers that prevent more consumer choice. Louisville is an excellent example of showing how legislation and regulation can enable — or in other cases hinder — the ability for companies to compete and provide consumers with more choice.
That's not just a regional issue. That's a national one, right?
We think it's a great example that Louisville has made as a city — to create regulations or improve regulations that make it easier for these investments to be made in these sorts of networks.
Speaking of investment: How much are you willing to spend to build this out?
Certainly we're not disclosing any financial metrics related to the business. But it's clearly an investment area which we think provides some real benefit to the Internet as a whole. And we think we're on a path to create a real strong business.
In the cities where we are providing service — and the cities where we're doing construction — we're very serious about creating a service that customers will really love. Our initial experience, where we are serving customers in those cities, is really positive. Customers really view us as best in class. So we're very serious about providing a very competitive service — in the markets that we're serving.
How many markets can you serve? Big companies like AT&T and Verizon sank tens of billions of dollars into building broadband networks, and then pulled back on their national ambitions.
I can't really go into what other folks in the industry might have done in the past or reported.
I think for Alphabet, as a whole, we really believe that innovation can bring change in industries and businesses that can be profound. So the innovation vector is something we're really focused on — and something we believe can create progress in our business. We're confident in the business model and we're being very thoughtful in terms of where and how we invest.
So you can expand beyond the cities where Fiber is and the ones where you've announced plans?
Absolutely. As we look at our investment level, as you've seen, we continue to announce a stream of new cities that we're focused on. Overall, it's a space that's really ripe for innovation, both in terms of the core technology and also different approaches to the business model. And I think that will have long-term impact on the fundamentals of the business and help us shape how we invest going forward.
Most Americans have one local provider for reliable, fast broadband — two, if they're lucky. At the onset of Fiber, you had cities that were practically begging you to come. Is that still the case?
There's huge interest among the cities because they see such a profound benefit of having cutting-edge Internet in their city. The cities are very important partners to us — they can help private sector investment create benefit for the city and the residents.
Your biggest competitors here — Time Warner Cable, Comcast, AT&T, Verizon — have invested in this for decades and have deep ties in Washington, D.C. Are you concerned about the competitive advantage that they have, on the investment and regulatory side?
Some regulations can help make a difference. We're confident that the market will eventually decide on the best products and services. If the consumers have choice, the market dynamics will take care of the rest.
I live in SF. As soon as you announced plans to expand here, my roommate asked how I could get Fiber to our apartment. Places like this have huge demand for reliable, fast Internet. What's a reasonable timeline for your expansion?
In a given city, like San Francisco, we've only announced an opening dialogue with a city. Obviously a city like that can have considerable demand. But also construction in a city like that can be a slow and deliberate process. So we have to balance that to figure out how we can best bring service into those markets.
What do you want to see for Fiber by the end of this year?
We have some really clear internal metrics. Of course, I won't go into them.