Google Fiber just abandoned Louisville. So, how is the expansion in Salt Lake City going?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Scott Tenney, head of Google Fiber operations in Utah, announces the official launch of its high-speed internet service at their offices in Trolley Square, referred to as Google Space on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2016.

Google Fiber says it will continue wiring Salt Lake City and giving customers lightning-fast internet speeds — in spite of news last week that the company is abandoning a partly finished fiber-optic network in Kentucky due to technical problems.

A spokesman for the Mountain View, Calif.-based company said its operations in Utah’s capital city and in Provo would not be affected. That doesn’t mean Google Fiber’s build out here has gone as quickly as originally advertised, with some neighborhoods waiting years for the service to come online while the company has not offered a timeline for its completion.

Jacob Brace, the firm’s Salt Lake City-based community impact manager, said Friday the company is poised to switch on its one-gigabit service starting in March for the neighborhoods of Jordan Meadows, Westpointe and Rose Park along North Temple as it continues to extend fiber across the city.

Brace said the firm’s service footprint now covers almost half of Salt Lake City, including much of the downtown core and environs, “90 to 95 percent of Sugar House” as well as neighborhoods on the east bench.

“We’re super focused on the customers and the network in Salt Lake City and Provo,” Brace said. “We’re excited about the new areas and neighborhoods that we’re able to open up.”

‘Learn by failing’

Google Fiber is blaming its first official exit from a U.S. market on a new method for burying its roadside fiber lines in so-called micro-trenches, just a few inches from the surface. In some Louisville neighborhoods, a sealant used to cover those trenches reportedly failed, leaving the lines exposed.

Rather than having to “essentially rebuild our entire network,” Google Fiber said in a blog post it would shut down its Louisville grid April 15 after giving customers two months of free service.

"Innovating means learning, and sometimes, unfortunately, you learn by failing,” the company wrote. “In Louisville, we’ve encountered challenges that have been disruptive to residents and caused service issues for our customers."

But the company is currently exploring use of a similar trenching method in Utah. And in spite of Google Fiber’s assurances it is here for the long haul, some are warning the Louisville withdrawal could portend something similar in Salt Lake City.

“Google has not lived up to the hype,” said Pete Ashdown, founder and CEO of XMission, Utah’s first internet service provider and a Google Fiber competitor in some areas.

“We've seen retraction over and over,” Ashdown said. “You've got to wonder if this Salt Lake expansion is really in our future or are we going to be the next on the list that they halt expansion on?”

He and others noted that nearly four years on, key parts of the city — including The Avenues and neighborhoods around the University of Utah — still remain unwired by the company.

While Brace declined this week to offer a timeline on when it might bring additional neighborhoods online, he said Google Fiber “is still extremely committed to our operations here.”

Months, not years?

The company bought Provo’s existing high-speed network, known as iProvo, in 2013 and has operated it since as one of what are now nine Fiber cities. Brace said Google Fiber continues to maintain and upgrade that network.

In August 2016, after more than two years of negotiations, study at Salt Lake City Hall and initial network construction, Google Fiber launched its gigabit service — with optional TV and phone service — over an initial 112-block area in the center of the city.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, left, and Devin Baer, Google's Assistant City Manager for Google Salt Lake City, announce in 2015 that Salt Lake City was being studied as a candidate to host a fiber-optic network offering gigabit internet speeds. The Mountainview, Calif-based company chose Utah's capitol as a Fiber city the following year.

Right-of-way permit applications indicate Google Fiber’s network construction has involved building a series of hubs around the city, linked by a combination of fiber lines hung from telephone poles and cables buried along roadsides.

The company, which also declined to provide numbers on its Utah customer base, offers its top speed, called Fiber 1000, for $70 a month, along with a slower Fiber 100 service of 100 megabits per second for $50 a month. Google Fiber also operates two customer-service centers, known as Fiber Spaces, at Salt Lake City’s Trolley Square and on Center Street in Provo.

But early claims that Google Fiber would expand across Utah’s capital “in a matter of months and not years” did not bear out, as the company reportedly saw glitches with some subcontractors laying its fiber conduits, including times they hit other buried utility lines as they were digging.

Two months after adding Salt Lake City to its Fiber cities, the head of Access, the division of parent company Alphabet that includes Google Fiber, announced it was halting operations in “potential Fiber cities” and laid off employees across the country. The company has seen two leadership changes since amid reports of missed financial and subscriber-recruitment goals.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City's customer-service center for Google Fiber, known as Fiber Space and located at Trolley Square.

But Brace said the firm continues to add new Salt Lake City customers daily and that its installation vans are busy. The latest build-out to west side neighborhoods, he said, has gone smoothly and on time in spite of some bad weather.

“We’re really excited that the connectivity has been happening,” he said.

Sugar House Community Council Chairman Landon Clark confirmed that after a flurry of complaints more than a year ago over torn-up yards and utility poles suddenly appearing on private property, the few reports since on Google Fiber from the neighborhood have been largely positive.

He said one Sugar House resident living along 1300 South reports she still cannot get Google Fiber service. Brace said there are pockets within the company’s fiber footprint it had not reached due to geographic obstacles or a lack of permission from property owners.

But Clark, himself a Google Fiber customer, said the gigabit speeds are otherwise being well received. “I love it,” he said of the service, including uninterrupted streaming of movies online. “It’s been a really positive thing.”

‘Enhancing the toolbox’

Salt Lake City Engineer Matt Cassel said Google Fiber has been working closely with city staff to study a new shallow trenching technique for burying its cables that could speed up the company’s network build.

“Instead of digging deep and putting it in, they want to put it just below the asphalt or a short distance below the asphalt,” Cassel said, adding that he had urged Google Fiber to submit a formal permit application in hopes of having the technique approved in time for spring construction.

Brace confirmed the company was studying the new burial method as part of its installations, but noted it was “much different” than the technique that got the company into trouble in Louisville. Where micro-trenching involves digging two inches or so down, he said, shallow trenching goes three to four times deeper. And in addition to being faster and less disruptive to neighborhoods, the digging technique lowers the potential risk of hitting other utility lines, Brace said.

But Ashdown, with XMission, said micro-trenching could leave cables vulnerable, particularly in winter, and is a technique his company views skeptically.

"The problem comes with snowplows,” he said. "If you have a crack in the asphalt and the snowplow hits that, then that just causes leverage to pull up the asphalt.”

But Cassel said city engineers had carefully vetted the technique through the winter months and about two weeks ago, urged Google Fiber to submit plans for how it will deploy shallow trenching.

“We’re pretty close to them being comfortable and us being comfortable with them being able to proceed,” he said.

'Watch and see’

Evidence suggests that Google Fiber’s competitors, meanwhile, have reacted to the company’s presence in Utah since 2016 in ways that appear to have benefited the state’s consumers.

Comcast, a longtime internet service provider in Utah, now offers residential gigabit connections throughout the state, including Salt Lake City, at $70 per month.

Using a technology known as Docsis 3.1, the company delivers high-speed access via a previously installed cable network once used for TV service. Comcast has spent nearly $700 million on network improvements in Utah since 2011, said Deneiva Knight, external affairs manager for its Mountain West region.

Knight reports Comcast has seen “an outpouring of interest from residential customers” in its gigabit connections in recent years.

“It’s sort of the new sexy thing,” Knight said, though she, too, declined to provide customer numbers.

CenturyLink, based in Louisiana, has been deploying fiber to Utah residences and businesses for several years and now offers gigabit speeds from Logan to St. George, according to Jeremy Ferkin, vice president for its Utah operations. To date, the company has enabled fiber to nearly 100,000 homes.

Its gigabit service goes for $65 per month to new customers.

The municipal broadband network known as UTOPIA Fiber also provides high-speed connections to a few businesses and apartment complexes in Salt Lake City. Created more than 15 years ago by a consortium of Utah cities — not including Utah’s capital — UTOPIA is limited in where it can offer service, said CEO Roger Timmerman, but has still seen demand from customers on the rise.

Fiber’s future in Utah, Timmerman said, “is kind of a watch-and-see with Google.”