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City Was 'Taken By Surprise' By Google Fiber's Decision To Leave Louisville

John Cummings/Creative Commons

There's still a lot that's unknown about the infrastructure Google Fiber will leave behind when it shuts down its service in Louisville in mid-April. City officials say they're in active talks with the ultra-high-speed internet service provider about the logistics of dealing with the fiber lines it has laid down in rights-of-way around the city.

Grace Simrall, the city's chief of civic innovation and technology, said she and other officials were "taken by surprise" when Google Fiber informed them of its decision to leave. That came the night before its announcement to customers and the public. Simrall said the city's efforts to change Google Fiber's decision were unsuccessful.

Now city officials are meeting with Google Fiber representatives to determine what will become of the fiber cables the company may leave behind.

"What assets are actually in the rights of way? What does that mean? How do we go about planning the restoration?" Simrall said, listing some of the questions the city aims to have answered by the end of Google's service on April 15.

They will also need to determine whether any of the fiber in the ground could be used by another internet service provider. But Simrall said the trenching technique puts some "limitations on the viability" of the fiber.

She said that, per city policy and a franchise agreement entered with Google Fiber in 2016, the company is responsible for restoring roadways to their original condition or better. Simrall said Louisville Metro hasn't directly paid Google Fiber any money, but media outlets including WDRB have reported that Louisville has paid more than $380,000 in legal bills defending ordinances put in place to lure the company.

Google Fiber experimented with a new shallow-trenching technique for laying fiber in Louisville. That involved tearing into roadways, but sparked frustration when, months later, the sealant used to keep the two-inch-deep fiber lines in place failed.

Simrall said she's disappointed in Google Fiber's decision to leave Louisville. But she said she and other city officials were aware of the risks when they entered the agreement with Google Fiber using a new method for its fiber installation.

"It certainly never was our intention for the city to be used as guinea pigs or as an experiment," Simrall said. "If this succeeded, we would leapfrog other communities."

She said trying new construction techniques at scale was challenging, but that the city had good intentions in pursuing Google Fiber.

The company's entry to Louisville brought about some changes, notably the controversial "one touch make ready" ordinance that would allow internet cables to be installed onto existing poles. That was intended to decrease the time and cost involved in setting up infrastructure for superfast internet.

Simrall said that move, as well as changes to the city's communications ordinance, benefit Louisville. She said the city, other internet service providers and cellular service providers can learn from the experience with Google Fiber.

She also said having Google Fiber in the market contributed to more high-speed, lower-cost internet options for Louisville consumers.

"We were never saying Google Fiber was it and that we were just going to walk away form bringing other internet options to our residents and businesses," Simrall said. "My team and I have been working very diligently, in fact, to figure out who else we can invite into our market.”

She declined to share her team's shortlist, but said it includes providers who already operate in Louisville who may want to expand.

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.

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