SUNDAY EDITION | Where is Google Fiber? Mostly in the Highlands, records show

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Google Fiber is leaving Louisville only about a year after it began offering its superfast Internet service to a few neighborhoods, citing problems with the method it used to build the network through shallow trenches in city streets.

The shut off will happen April 15, said Google Fiber, a unit of Silicon Valley tech giant Alphabet, in a blog post Thursday.

Google Fiber has served about a dozen cities, and Louisville is the first it has abandoned.

“We’re not living up to the high standards we set for ourselves, or the standards we’ve demonstrated in other Fiber cities,” the company said. “We would need to essentially rebuild our entire network in Louisville to provide the great service that Google Fiber is known for, and that's just not the right business decision for us.”

In cold comfort, Google Fiber said it will use the "lessons" from its stint in Louisville in the other cities it serves, where no changes are planned.

The decision is a blow for Louisville civic leaders who, craving tech community cachet and more options for residential Internet service, worked for years to attract Google’s service to Louisville.

Fiber-optic wires offer superior connectivity and data speeds compared to copper telephone lines or coaxial cables.

Google Fiber's direct connections to homes basically offers industrial-strength Internet to residences.

Shortly after Google announced Louisville as a possible location in 2015, the Metro Council passed a utility pole ordinance at Google’s behest, then spent $382,328 on outside lawyers to defend the ordinance in lawsuits from AT&T and the cable company now called Spectrum.

Mayor Greg Fischer said in early 2016 that Louisville’s landing Google Fiber was “huge signal to the world.”

In a statement Thursday, Fischer spokeswoman Jean Porter said Google Fiber prodded incumbent providers AT&T and Spectrum to improve their offerings.

"From the time Louisville Metro began working with Google Fiber, we've believed that adding this service as a choice for residents would lead other providers to offer better services, faster speeds and lower costs," she said. "Competition is good for a market. AT&T, Spectrum, and others have stepped up and increased investment in Louisville. We look forward to working with them and others to provide residents with choices for low-cost, gigabit-speed internet access."

Google Fiber started work in 2017 and ended up offering service to a small portion of the city.

Sunday Edition | Where is Google Fiber? Mostly in the Highlands, records show

While the company has never revealed its service areas or customer numbers, it got right-of-way permits to install its network in Census blocks containing just shy of 11,000 households, according to public records WDRB analyzed last year.

Those areas are Strathmoor Manor, Belknap and Deer Park in the Upper Highlands (5,044 households), Newburg (3,728 households) and Portland (2,006 households).

AT&T has been deploying its own fiber connections since 2016 and is far ahead of Google Fiber. An AT&T spokesman said Thursday that AT&T Fiber is now available at "nearly 175,000 Louisville area homes and small businesses, and growing."

Louisville’s public works department allowed Google Fiber to try a new approach to running fiber – cutting shallow trenches into the pavement of city streets to bury cables.

It led to a lot of problems, including sealant that popped out of the trenches and snaked over the roadways.

“It feels like you are using us for a science-fair experiment,” Greg Winn, an architect who lives on Boulevard Napolean, told Google Fiber representatives during a Belknap Neighborhood Association meeting last year. “…Our streets look awful.”

Google Fiber would go on to fill in the trenches with asphalt, what company executives said was like filling a 60-mile long pothole.

Google Fiber never ended up using the utility pole law -- a policy called One Touch Make Ready -- that Louisville passed at its behest, as the company only buried its wires instead of attaching them to poles.

A public relations representative for Google Fiber said no one was available for an interview.

In written responses, the spokesman said Google Fiber initially chose not to use the utility pole access because of "uncertainty" about whether the ordinance would hold up. Now that it has cut trenches in the streets, the company has no desire to start over. 

"Even using (One Touch Make Ready), we’d need to start from scratch, and that’s just not feasible as a business decision," the spokesman said.

Ted Smith, who was Louisville's first chief of civic innovation from 2011-2016, said Thursday that the utility pole ordinance is good public policy that reflects the city's desire for any provider -- not just Google Fiber -- to invest in Internet infrastructure.

"We did everything we could to encourage anybody who wanted to come in and build, to come in and build," said Smith, now works at the University of Louisville, in an interview.

Google Fiber was not clear about what happens to the wires it has already laid in city streets and dug into homeowners' yards.

"Our infrastructure is installed in different ways across the city, which means we need to take different actions on various parts of the network," Google Fiber said in the statement. "We will, of course, be working closely with our metro partners to make sure that any assets left behind are safe and stable for the long term. In some instances this will necessitate removing our existing facilities. We want to make sure that our existing network and infrastructure is taken care of once we cease operations and are talking to the city about all of these issues."

Smith said Google Fiber's retreat is a reminder that "mid-size cities like Louisville do have to work harder and that applies to all sorts of things."

He said the city's recent efforts to get more direct flights from Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport are encouraging.

"There are steps back, but that shouldn’t be confused with, 'We can’t get these things done,'" he said.

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Reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822, cotts@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2019 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

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Chris Otts reports for WDRB.com about business and economic topics, higher education and local / state government. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after seven years with The Courier-Journal. Got a tip? Chris is at 502-585-0822 and cotts@wdrb.com.