Google Fiber's Medin: Net neutrality doesn't promote broadband competition

ORLANDO, Fla.--Google Fiber (NASDAQ: GOOG) may be an ardent supporter of the FCC's new net neutrality rules, but Milo Medin, vice president for access services at Google Fiber, says that the order does not address the issue of what he calls "bandwidth abundance."

Speaking at the morning keynote session at Comptel Spring 2015, Medin said that the net neutrality rules still have yet to open up new choices in terms of pricing, speeds or alternative providers to get broadband service.   

"No consumers are seeing higher speeds than before the order was passed; no consumers are paying less for their Internet services than what they were paying for; no consumers are seeing higher volume caps that they had before; and no consumers have additional choice of providers than they had before," Medin said. "The openness of the Internet may have been preserved, which is really important, but the Internet options consumers can choose from have not changed and will not change because of what was passed in that order."

Medin added that while "protecting the openness of the Internet is vital, it does not address the underlying core problem of scarcity, which is the lack of competition."

According to the latest America Consumer Services Institute survey, customer service ratings of all of the major U.S. ISPs continued to decline. Interestingly, government agency customer service ranked higher at 64 percent above ISPs, which ranked at 63 percent out of 100 percent.

"If a service provider is not going to lose customers to another because they are not delivering good service, why should the shareholders of that company want the management team of that company to spend a nickel more on better systems or better training," Medin said. "Without a real choice, there's no economic incentive to invest in a better service."

But FCC and federal regulations aren't going to be the answer or solution that will motivate cable operators or incumbent telcos to deliver better broadband choice to more consumers and businesses.

Medin said that regulation isn't going to solve the broadband availability problem. "Some would argue that regulation is the answer, but I have never seen a company deliver better service because a federal rule existed that said they must," Medin said. "What we do need to do is build new networks and deliver better and faster services while offering consumers new choice that replaces bandwidth scarcity with bandwidth abundance."

One of the barriers to building these new networks is the complex process to get access to necessary rights-of-way (ROWs) along existing utility poles in the local towns and cities.

Google Fiber has publicly said that in order to build out its 1 Gbps service to new cities, it wants a streamlined permitting process to get access to necessary rights-of-way.  

Google Fiber and new competitors did get a slight reprieve from the FCC on the pole attachment issue when the regulator included common carrier requirements in the net neutrality order.

"Until recently none of us had any right to get on a pole because the FCC only granted pole attachment rights only to telephone companies and cable operators, but in the process of reclassifying broadband Internet service as a common carrier service they extended pole attachment rights to all Internet service providers," Medin said. "That's a great first step I'd like to commend the commission for addressing, but we still need more details on how this is going to be applied."

Within the pole attachment process Medin said that local utilities and incumbent telcos and cable operators don't delay the "make ready" process when a competitor wants to build out fiber in a new region. But the make ready work could be sped up by having utilities and incumbent telcos remove old unused wiring as they replace old poles.

"It's also important that the processes used for make ready are streamlined and incumbents aren't able to slow builds down by delaying make ready work," Medin said. "The best outcome would be to not have to do make ready work at all by making sure poles have adequate capacity for multiple providers from the start."

But the FCC regulations are just one element of solving the pole attachment and ROW issue. Other government agencies like the Department of Transportation need to work with communications providers and local communities to permit the laying of conduit along new highway, bridge and roads, for example.

In 2011, a group of House Democrats looked into how to gain a better understanding from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on how much money would be saved on building out new broadband networks by adopting a "dig once" policy where fiber cables would be installed when new U.S. highways are built.

Despite these calls to create a "dig once" policy to expand broadband to more areas, not a lot of progress has been made.   

"We still don't have a policy to place conduit along new highway builds despite efforts from my local Congressional representative Anna Eshoo and several others in Congress to get the Department of Transportation and others to do the right thing," Medin said. "Installing conduit along a new highway or road build is a very expensive action, yet it can reduce the cost pulling fiber by 30 percent, which is especially important in rural areas where inexpensive dark fiber transport is very hard to come by."

Using highways are just one public infrastructure vehicle that a local community can use. Today, over 700 U.S. cities are being sued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over Clean Water Act violations because their sewers and storm drains are improperly tied.  

"Given the fixes to replace and overhaul the sewer system, which is a very expensive proposition, some cities wanted to install conduit and fiber at the same time all of the streets were open," Medin said. "However, due to an obscure administrative rule, the EPA will not allow this and told cities to complete the sewer project and if they wanted to install conduit they would have to open the streets again."

Medin said that the only way cities can become a bigger role in driving broadband into more consumer and business' hands is that there needs to be common goals across not only the telecom regulators, but also other federal government departments like the EPA and Department of Transportation.

"What we need is coherence across all departments so that agencies are part of the broadband agenda," Medin said. "Unless the head of the Department of Transportation has the incentive to actually make broadband deployment something that he's accountable for, it's not reasonable to expect his department to do anything about it."

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