Is Google Fiber waiting for 5G?

Tuesday 8 November 2016 | 12:35 CET | Market Commentary

Supporters of copper or fibre are unlikely to come to any consensus soon. While the former announce new advances in G.fast and vectoring, the latter continue to push ahead with the roll-out of FTTH. Google Fiber's vision is still shrouded in mist; the stalled expansion, with roll-out now concentrated on the existing 10 cities in the US, could be driven by several reasons. Google Fiber has not given a clear explanation, but 5G may well have something to do with it. 

Google Fiber is an important part of 'Other Bets', which together with Google are the two main parts of Alphabet. Infrastructure is clearly a different type of business than search engines, but there are huge chances in the US for a business with a positive vision of the possibilities gigabit networks. So what will be Google Fiber's next step? There is obviously a technology risk, but new developments like G.fast and vectoring have not yet surpassed FTTH.


A survey by Ovum of operators planning roll-outs estimates that G.fast should have around 29 million subscribers by 2021. Swisscom and CenturyLink are among the first to launch the copper technology, and vendors such as Sckipio and Adtran are already working on delivering symmetric bandwidths. Nokia has started on the next step: XG-Fast, which can deliver 5 Gbps over a distance of 70m. Swisscom, which is working with Huawei, says it can reach up to 500 Mbps, over a longer distance of 200m. CenturyLink is also offering a maximum 500 Mbps.

VDSL vectoring

'Super vectoring' of VDSL connections improves their reach. KPN is testing Vplus equipment from Nokia, which is expected to reach initially 300 Mbps over 200m. The SuperVector technology from Huawei improves this to 300 Mbps over 300m. Vectoring makes it technically difficult for more than one operator to use the line, which has raised concerns about a remonopolisation of the market. VULA (virtual unbundled access) avoids this, and is being used in multiple markets, such as the UK and the Netherlands, to ensure alternative operators still have network access. Germany has opted for Layer 2 bitstream access with vectoring. 


Despite all of the above, the roll-out of FTTH is continuing undiminished, as well as developing its own technology advances, such as XG-PON, NG-PON2 and XGS-PON. The roll-out issues vary, from the need to cover outlying areas (with residents fees, such as in Sweden and the Netherlands) to ensuring a business case (such as Australia's NBN, through open access and mixed technologies). Countries such as France, Spain, Italy and Ireland have seen operators, sometimes with public authorities, partner to roll out FTTH. In addition to the incumbent, other providers have joined the market, such as Vodafone (Spain, Italy, Ireland), Orange (Spain) and Swisscom (via FastWeb in Italy).

Google Fiber

From all these options, technical and financial, Google Fiber chose from the beginning to go it alone. We've noted before how this could limit the venture's success. Recently Google decided to halt the expansion of the fibre network, saying it will not start roll-out in any new cities beyond the around ten where it already operates. Parent company Alphabet gave only a limited explanation for the decision: "the plan enhances our focus on new technology and deployment methods". It appears it's not so much about results ("our subscriber base and revenue are growing quickly"), but more problems with the roll-out and the technology choice. 

The recent takeover of Webpass may be a factor in this. Webpass uses a wireless local loop connection to the building, with fibre backhaul and existing in-building cabling. Wireless technology is developing quickly, and this is likely a reason why Google Fiber is taking a pause. 5G is increasingly being mentioned as a means for fixed connections as well, and Google Fiber may be waiting to see how these developments pan out before deciding on its next step. 

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