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Huntsville partners with Google Fiber for gigabit service

By   /   February 23, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Huntsville will partner with Google Fiber to offer gigabit Internet service to residents and businesses in the Rocket City.

The city anticipates spending $55 million to $60 million up front and recouping those costs through the lease with Google. Huntsville Utilities will own the system, and other private telecommunications providers can also offer broadband through its fiber-optic network.

AT&T, for one, has announced plans to launch its GigaPower high-speed service in a number of metro areas in the coming years, including the Alabama cities of Huntsville, Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery.

The Huntsville Utilities board of directors is expected to approve the lease agreement with Google Fiber on Tuesday.

City of Huntsville graphic

HIGH SPEED: Huntsville will own its municipal network, with costs to be recovered through lease agreements with private providers.

Google Fiber anticipates providing service beginning sometime next year, with expansion through the city in ensuing years. No prices have been announced yet, but Fortune notes that Google has charged $70 a month for 1 GB download speed in other cities.

That’s significantly less than what many customers of municipal-run broadband networks have been paying, including $500 per month in Opelika and $299 per month in eastern Kentucky.

Berin Szoka, president of Tech Freedom, which advocates technology expansion through entrepreneurship and sound public policy, told Watchdog.org he likes the idea of Huntsville partnering with potentially multiple private providers.

“That’s essentially the model we’ve been pushing,” he wrote in an email. “In principle, we would prefer that the city build only conduit, not install the fiber itself, but the difference is apparently pretty small.”

“It is, however, worth asking about the specific terms of the deal. Will Google Fiber (with other potential users) pay for the full costs of building the network in a reasonable period? If not, it’s a direct subsidy to Google. In other words, how are the lease rates set? Even if Google pays for it quickly, the incumbent carriers will no doubt complain that it’s still unfair to them. The point is: the financial details of the deal really matter.”

The city had not revealed those details as of Tuesday morning. Huntsville Utilities spokesman Joe Gehrdes didn’t immediately return Watchdog.org’s request for comment.

Huntsville, a city of nearly 190,000 that’s home to numerous engineers and is a leader in aeronautics research, started the process early last year when it issued requests for proposals from private vendors. Mayor Tommy Battle cited Chattanooga as a “gig city” to emulate, but the Tennessee city’s broadband system has plenty of detractors.

RELATED: Critics bash study proclaiming benefits of government Internet in Chattanooga  

One stark difference between Chattanooga and Huntsville is that while the Chattanooga Electric Power Board operates its own network, Huntsville Utilities didn’t plan to do the same unless no “suitable” proposals came from private companies.

The mayor’s office said suitable proposals must include a commitment “to serve many areas of the community to ensure that even underserved areas are covered.”

Jill Szuchmacher, director of expansion for Google Fiber, said at the Monday announcement at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center that “abundant high-speed Internet can help communities grow stronger, laying a foundation for innovation and economic growth. Huntsville’s leaders have taken a big step by bringing a new fiber network to their residents and businesses.”

Google Fiber now offers service in Kansas City, Austin, Atlanta and Provo, Utah, with some 15 other metro areas under consideration for expansion.

It was in Provo that municipal broadband proved to be perhaps the most expensive taxpayer boondoggle. After $39 million in taxpayer money was spent, and the fiber-optic infrastructure completed in 2004, iProvo proved untenable, as residents couldn’t afford $700 connection fees and small private providers chafed at the lease costs with the city. Residents were charged an extra $5.35 per month on their power bills to recoup costs before Provo sold the network to Google Fiber for $1.


Johnny Kampis is National Watchdog Reporter for Watchdog.org. Johnny previously worked in the newspaper industry and as a freelance writer, and has been published in The New York Times, Time.com, FoxNews.com and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A former semi-professional poker player, he is writing a book documenting the poker scene at the 2016 World Series of Poker, a decade after the peak of the poker boom. Johnny is also a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors.