How Google Fiber Works


In 2014, Google Fiber rolled out in Provo, Utah.
In 2014, Google Fiber rolled out in Provo, Utah.
© GEORGE FREY/Reuters/Corbis

Some of us are old enough to remember a time when everyone who was on the Internet accessed it through dial-up. Your computer hooked up to a modem that would noisily call the number of an ISP (Internet Service Provider) to connect you at 56 kilobits per second, if you were lucky enough to have one of the faster modems. Web pages would slowly draw themselves onto your screen. Pictures would take a long time to fully materialize, starting at the top and working their way down. Software might take hours to download. If you didn't have a dedicated phone line, you would tie up the line, and you might get knocked off if someone tried to use the phone. We dealt more in text than in other bandwidth-heavy media out of necessity.

Our Internet connection speeds have greatly increased since the advent of broadband connections through technologies like cable and DSL (Digital Subscriber Lines). According to the FCC's current standards, the new goal is for every household to have access to affordable broadband with a minimum of 4 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 1 Mbps upload speed. Although around 30 percent of U.S. households are reportedly still connecting at near dial-up speeds, many of us have converted to much faster broadband Internet connections [source: Wyatt]. Speeds well past the 4 Mbps minimum goal are becoming widely available and more and more affordable.

With faster broadband speeds, we can easily stream music and videos, multiplay video games, have video chats with friends, upload pictures of ourselves to social media sites and surf all sorts of media on the web faster than ever before. There is the occasional hiccup, for instance when a video stalls and buffers for a little while or it takes you a while to get to a web page. But for the most part, those of us lucky enough to have the average broadband speeds can stream movies and surf the Internet to our heart's content.

There are, however, even faster Internet services becoming available that aim to bring us speeds in gigabits per second -- or at least 1 gigabit per second, which is 1,000 Mbps. One such service is Google Fiber, which first rolled out in Kansas City in 2012, and has since been expanding into other metro areas.

Google purports Google Fiber to be up to 100 times faster than the average U.S. broadband speed. At speeds like that, things that took hours or minutes to download will only take seconds and a lot of tasks may appear seemingly instantaneously.

And the super-fast speeds aren't even the whole story. Google is also offering slower speeds, comparable to the FCC broadband minimums, for free for seven years to consumers in the Google Fiber areas (after a construction fee). Free, or nearly free, high-speed Internet could be a game changer for a lot of people currently stuck at pre-broadband speeds.

Read on to find out more about this new, lightning-fast Internet service.

Google Fiber Network Infrastructure

Currently, most people get their Internet, broadband or otherwise, through their phone or cable companies. For the most part, these services transmit data into your home as electrical signals over copper cable, although the vast networks that bring us data and telephone communication incorporate lots of types of wiring, including fiber optics. Fiber optic cables transmit pulses of light through glass (or sometimes plastic) strands, and are capable of transmitting data much more quickly than copper, especially over long distances.

Fiber optics have been in use in telecommunication networks since the 1970s, but the so-called "last mile" stretches from service lines into individual homes are usually still made up of copper wiring. Phone companies tend to use twisted pair copper cable (like traditional phone lines) to deliver DSL, and cable companies use the same coaxial cable through which they deliver cable TV. Most homes in the U.S. are already wired with at least one of these, if not both, and fiber into the home is fairly rare. But Google is looking to change this by laying thousands of miles of fiber cabling to create last-mile fiber networks.

Google Fiber networks include several basic components, although the actual design will likely vary by city. A fiber ring around the city feeds fiber into a fiber hut. Here the fiber lines are connected to devices that receive and transmit data from users' homes to the Internet and vice versa. From the hut, lines of fiber lead in various directions to telecom cabinets in neighborhoods, where the lines are further broken out into smaller bundles that lead to groups of homes. The fiber cables will run either above-ground on new or existing utility poles, or underground in conduit tubes, through neighborhoods, where individual strands of fiber optic cable will lead directly into homes, much like phone and cable lines do now.

Google Fiber Hardware in the Home

A Google Fiber technician installing a fiber optic box at a residential home.
A Google Fiber technician installing a fiber optic box at a residential home.
© GEORGE FREY/Reuters/Corbis

Once the fiber optic cable is in your home, Google will connect it to a port on the side of a fiber jack, also called an optical network terminal (ONT), which they will attach to a wall plate and mount to an interior wall. The fiber jack also has power, Ethernet ports and a status LED (light emitting diode). This jack converts the fiber optic light signals into gigabit Ethernet signals and sends them to a network box (also provided by Google) via Ethernet cable.

The network box is a 7.5 by 7.5 by 1.6 inch (19 by 19 by 4 centimeter) high-speed router that allows your devices to get on the Internet. It has four gigabit Ethernet ports on the back for connecting your computer and other devices via Ethernet cable, as well as the Ethernet WAN (wide area network) port for connecting to the fiber jack. A reset button and power connector are also on the back of the box. The network box has built-in 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi and allows up to 16 devices to connect wirelessly, although having a lot of devices connected at once will decrease performance. You can connect any device to the network that supports IPv4 or IPv5 via Ethernet or WiFi. The box incorporates four LEDs; their colors and display (solid, blinking or fluttering) states can tell you various things about your network status. The network box also has a built-in gigabit firewall for protection from online intrusion.

An optional service is Google Fiber TV. If you opt for TV, you will also get a storage box and a Google Fiber TV box. The storage box is a 7.5 by 8 by 1.7 inch (19 by 20 by 4.3 centimeter) DVR (digital video recorder) for saving shows or movies to watch later. It has a coaxial port, a USB port, an Ethernet port and a power connector, as well as a reset button. One box will work with all your TV boxes. The storage box is connected to your network box via Ethernet cable and is designed to sit underneath it. In most cases, this DVR connects to your TV Boxes over coaxial cable wiring in your walls through the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) networking standard, although it might be connected via Ethernet in some cases. This coaxial cabling can either already exist from previous cable TV service or be newly installed by Google during Google Fiber installation.

The TV box is a set-top box measuring 6.8 by 5.3 by 1.3 inches (17.3 by 13.5 by 3.3 centimeters). You will need one for every TV you want connected to Google Fiber TV. Google includes one, but you can order extras. The TV box is connected to a coaxial cable from the wall via a coaxial port on the back of the box. This connects it to the storage box. The back of the box also includes an Ethernet port for connecting devices like gaming consoles, although connecting to the TV box only allows for a speed of 100 Mbps. In rare cases, the Ethernet port can also be used for connecting the box to the fiber network. Other ports on the back include S/PDIF, AV out, HDMI out, HDMI in (currently unsupported) and a power connector. An infrared (IR) extender port (in case you need to attach an IR extender so that the remote control signal can get to the box), an IR receiver and LED status lights are on the front of the TV box, along with a currently unsupported USB port. A WiFi access point is built in to each TV box and can be enabled to improve WiFi coverage all over your house.

At least in their Kansas City rollout, each household was given a Google Nexus 7 tablet (a full-featured tablet computer) to use as a remote control. As of mid-2014, however, Google Fiber comes with a standard remote control instead, but the Google Fiber app can be downloaded and used on mobile devices running the Android Jelly Bean operating system or higher, and iPads running iOS 6.0 or higher. The standard remote can be used in either IR or Bluetooth mode. With IR, you can set it to control both your TV box and your TV set.

You can view, configure and manage these devices from your My Fiber account on the web. You can also configure the network box via the Network Box Advanced interface to change the more advanced networking settings.

Per the terms of service, Google will own the network interface unit outside that connects your home to the Google Fiber network, as well as the fiber jack and network box inside your home. But any other equipment that Google gives you belongs to you. They reserve the right to automatically upgrade the software to all Google Fiber equipment. All of the hardware components are open source, and their source code can be downloaded from Google.

What does Google Fiber TV include?

You can get TV service along with Google Fiber, giving you another choice besides cable or satellite. Google Fiber TV includes more than 150 high-definition (HD) channels, some standard definition (SD) channels and optional premiums such as HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, STARZ and sports channels. Local broadcast channels are included as well.

The TV box is a set-top box that allows you to access your channels. You use your remote control to bring up a guide that's a lot like a typical cable TV guide. You can browse or search for content, look at information about current and upcoming programs, and pick what you want to watch. You can also access on-demand content, rent movies and set programs to record to the storage box.

Google Fiber TV also includes several built-in apps:

  • Netflix
  • Vudu
  • YouTube
  • Weather

The Netflix and Vudu apps require subscriptions to those services. Netflix even has Super HD content that can be accessed through Google Fiber. From the Apps & More menu, you can also access your personal photos, music and video content.

At first HBO, ESPN, Comedy Central and Disney weren't included, but they have since been added (HBO and other premium services are available as optional paid extras). As of August 2014, Google Fiber subscribers who pay for HBO cannot access HBO GO, an online service that allows people to watch HBO content away from their TVs. An agreement could be struck to include it in the future.

Google Fiber does offer something called TV Everywhere (TVE) that allows you to watch shows from certain channels on a computer or mobile device when you are away from home. You can get the following TVE channels if you have Google Fiber TV and any required subscriptions:

  • NBC Olympics TVE
  • Showtime Anytime (requires paid subscription)
  • STARZ Play (requires paid subscription)
  • Watch ABC
  • Watch ABC Family
  • Watch Disney
  • Watch ESPN
  • Watch Longhorn

The DVR that comes with Google Fiber can store up to 2 terabytes (TB) of data, which translates to abound 500 hours of high-definition programming. It will even record multiple shows simultaneously, up to eight at a time. Many DVRs and TV services can only record one show at a time, and their hard drives hold far less data. Google's storage box also allows you to store personal files, like photos, music and home videos, which you can view or play through any of your connected TVs via the apps menu. In the case of audio files, you can also play them through audio equipment connected to the TV box or TV, but the remote won't work to control audio devices.

If you download the Google Fiber mobile app onto a compatible mobile device, you can use that device as a remote, to search through shows and movies without interrupting what's playing, to schedule and manage DVR recordings and to share to social media, among other things.

Google Fiber Actual Speeds

The speed of installation will probably not match the speed of your service, no matter how good your technician is.
The speed of installation will probably not match the speed of your service, no matter how good your technician is.
© GEORGE FREY/Reuters/Corbis

Google purports to bring you broadband Internet, both upload and download, at speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps). And it says its Google Fiber service is up to 100 times faster than average broadband speeds, which Internet research firm Akamai estimated to be 9.8 Mbps in the U.S. in its third quarter 2013 "State of the Internet" report [sources: Consumer Reports, Akamai]. Akamai's estimate has gone up a smidgen to 10.5 Mbps in its Q1 2014 report [source: Akamai]. One Gbps would still put Google Fiber close to that 100-times mark, but will users really get that speed?

The short answer is: not quite. But you may still get the fastest speeds available. One gigabit is the maximum rather that what you can expect on a daily basis, and a lot of factors can slow it down. Ookla Speedtest calculated Google Fiber's average speeds for the 30 days ending on July 20, 2014 to be 235.67 Mbps download and 223.31 Mbps upload based on users' experiences with their speed test service [source: Ookla]. There are factors that might skew these numbers, such as people using WiFi (which is much slower than connecting to a network via Ethernet), or maybe even some users testing from the slower free service. Google created its own speed test that can apparently more accurately gauge ultra-fast fiber services [source: Google].

One user, Mike Demarais, tested and posted his speeds just after the rollout in Kansas City, Kansas. He was connecting from the "Home for Hackers," a house specifically purchased to provide temporary rent-free housing and high-speed Internet to potential start-up entrepreneurs in an area where Google Fiber was made available. Demarais reported consistently getting 600 to 700 Mbps speeds via Ethernet and 200 Mbps via WiFi [source: Chan, Farivar]. And at a Google Fiber Space showroom in Kansas City, at least one tester got speeds over 900 Mbps [source: Manjoo]. So people might not be hitting the max, but very high speeds are possible.

What Else Might Slow Down Google Fiber?

There are quite a few things that can slow your connection down besides connecting via WiFi. Your computer's network interface card (NIC) also makes a difference. Fast Ethernet (or 10baseTx) cards can connect at only 100 Mbps, whereas Gigabit Ethernet (or GigE or 1000BASE-T) cards are necessary for connecting at 1 Gbps. Some newer laptops, especially some netbooks, do not come with Ethernet cards or connectors, but you might be able to connect a Gigabit Ethernet adapter via the USB port. To get gigabit speeds, it needs to be connected to a USB3 port. The Ethernet cable itself also matters. Cat5e cable can transmit at 1 Gbps and Cat6 can transmit at 10 Gbps, but Cat5 can only do 100 Mbps.

Other things that can affect your download and upload speed are the age of your computer or device and its hardware, the connecting device's configuration, the operating system, the web browser you're using, whether you have other applications running and whether another device that plays video (including your Google TV box) is running or even just connected and turned on. Video (including Google Fiber TV) takes priority over data, and data gets to use whatever bandwidth is left over. All devices on your home network will also be sharing the bandwidth, so having multiple devices running might slow down your connection a bit, especially if any of them are streaming video.

Some websites (and areas on the network between your computer and the sites you're trying to visit) won't be running at 1 Gbps, which will affect the speed at which you're able to upload and download data. Any network congestion occurring anywhere between you and your desired data will also slow you down. Some sites simply cannot serve out data as fast as Google Fiber can consume it. Netflix's servers, for instance, can only process streaming HD video at 5 Mbps [source: Talbot]. Google is working with major content providers, including Netflix, to allow them to connect directly to Google's network, and in some cases they're even letting those providers put their servers directly in Google's Fiber facilities (co-locating) to make transfer of content to users even faster.

Google doesn't impose a data cap or throttle users' speeds for how much they use like some providers do, but the company does state that it might slow down users' connections during times of extreme network congestion in a manner equitable to users.

Even with all the possible things that might slow down your Google Fiber gigabit service speed, it should still be far faster than most of its broadband competitors. Google also offers a slower 5 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload service, which is comparable to the basic broadband offerings of cable and phone providers.

Google Fiber Competitors' Speeds

A fiber jack installation for Google Fiber service.
A fiber jack installation for Google Fiber service.
© GEORGE FREY/Reuters/Corbis

Cable and DSL are the most widely available types of broadband Internet today. Cable is, as the name implies, provided by cable television providers over coaxial cable, and DSL is generally through telephone providers over twisted pair phone cable. Those are the wires they actually run into your home, although the networks behind them can incorporate multiple types of wiring, including fiber.

Cable is usually the faster choice. Download speeds of 10, 20 or even 30 Mbps are not uncommon, and some cable providers are offering up to 100 Mbps download. Upload speeds are generally much lower. The bandwidth can vary depending upon how many people in your neighborhood are online at once. DSL speeds are steadier, but usually a lot slower overall, often in the 1 to 6 Mbps range, although higher speeds are available in some areas.

AT&T U-verse uses fiber to get broadband to neighborhoods, but still uses DSL twisted-pair phone lines the rest of the way into users' homes. It offers plans with up to 6 Mbps or up to 18 Mbps download speeds, but it is only available in certain areas. And AT&T now also offers U-verse GigaPower (fiber straight into your home) with speeds up to 300 Mbps download and upload in Austin, Texas, with the promise of gigabit speeds in the future and expansion into more areas (perhaps as a result of Google Fiber's foray into that area). AT&T also offers regular DSL at slower speeds in areas not covered by U-verse.

Verizon FiOS is a service that runs fiber straight into users' homes like Google Fiber. It starts at 15 Mbps and goes up to 500 Mbps (both download and upload) in select areas. With a few million subscribers, it's likely the largest fiber-to-the-home network currently in existence [source: Talbot].

There are even other gigabit providers besides Google Fiber in various scattered localities throughout the United States. The service varies wildly in price, from around $35 per month (around half of Google Fiber's Internet-only price) to nearly a thousand dollars per month [sources: Brodkin, Griffith and Hachman].

And copper isn't down for the count yet. There has been some success in using various techniques to achieve fiber speeds over copper wiring, at least in research labs. In 2009, Ericsson was able to achieve 500 Mbps over 500 meters of twisted-pair copper phone lines, although it took six bonded lines to do so, which is more than are wired into most homes [source: Anderson]. In 2010, Alcatel-Lucent developed techniques that used two twisted-pair lines to reach 100 Mbps over 1 kilometer, and up to 300 Mbps over 400 meters [source: Mims]. And more recently, Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs purportedly achieved speeds of 10 Gbps over copper twisted pair, 10 times faster than Google Fiber's top reported speeds. However, this breakthrough was only over the short distance of 30 meters (98 feet). They also managed to reach 1 Gbps over 70 meters (230 feet). Alcatel suggested that their techniques could be used in conjunction with fiber, with the twisted-pair cable bringing this much higher than usual data speed the last few meters into people's homes [sources: Bautista, Kelion]. The main advantages of trying to improve the data transfer rates over copper wiring are cost and time savings, since many neighborhoods and homes are already hooked up to coaxial and twisted-pair wires.

Where can I get Google Fiber?

There aren't many places that have Google Fiber yet. In 2010, Google asked state, county and city officials and other interested community members to answer questions online and nominate their communities for consideration. In November 2012, they rolled out their first fiber network in Kansas City, Kansas. As of late summer 2014, Google Fiber is only available there and in Kansas City, Missouri and Provo, Utah, with service coming soon to Austin, Texas. Sign-up windows are only open for a limited time. For the Kansas City sign up, the neighborhoods that had the highest numbers of takers got their service built first. Google started to build once a certain percentage of a neighborhood's residents signed up.

Other areas being considered by Google for future roll-outs include 34 cities in the metro areas around Atlanta, Georgia; Portland, Oregon; San Jose, California, Phoenix, Arizona; San Antonio, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; Salt Lake City, Utah; Charlotte, North Carolina and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Google is conducting studies and working with local officials to see what it will take to build their networks in those areas as far as infrastructure, housing density and topography, among other things that could affect construction of a fiber network. Google is asking city officials for access to infrastructure and maps and for ways to expedite construction permitting, since such a large undertaking could require thousands of permits. The company aimed to announce which of the cities will be getting fiber by the end of 2014, and has stated that it could be all of them, depending upon their findings. Google says it will share its findings with the cities to help them with similar future projects, even in places where Google doesn't ultimately decide to build.

Available Plans

A technician performing a home installation of Google Fiber during the Provo, Utah rollout.
A technician performing a home installation of Google Fiber during the Provo, Utah rollout.
© GEORGE FREY/Reuters/Corbis

The pricing is very similar in the metro areas where people actually have Google Fiber. The pricing in Kansas City and Provo is $120 per month for Gigabit Internet plus TV (with a 2 year contract) or $70 per month for Gigabit Internet alone (with a 1 year contract in Kansas City, but no contract in Provo). The actual price increases a little due to applicable taxes and fees, and any extras people order (such as premium channels).

The TV plan includes one TV box, a storage box and a network box, while the non-TV plan just includes the network box. Both of those plans also include 1 TB of cloud storage (normally $9.99 a month from Google). In Provo there's also a one-time $30 construction fee on all plans.

An alternate, slower-speed plan for up to 5 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds is available, as well. This slower plan is free in Provo after the $30 construction fee, but in Kansas City, it costs either a $300 one-time construction charge or $25 per month for 12 months. The massive difference in construction fees between the two areas exists because Google was able to purchase and upgrade an existing city-owned fiber network called iProvo in Provo, but had to build a new network in Kansas City. The construction charge is waived in Kansas City for the 2 Gbps plans. In both areas, the slower basic plan doesn't require a contract, and is guaranteed at the sign-up address for at least 7 years.

Google also doesn't impose monthly data download caps, so you can upload and download as much as you want for the same flat fee. It's not uncommon for other companies to charge extra or throttle speeds for users who go over a monthly data limit.

Google provides 24/7 phone or online chat support to users, as well as email support.

The Future of High-Speed Internet

The existence of Google Fiber and other gigabit providers seems to be spurring the competition to increase available services and speeds to consumers in the areas where they have higher-speed options -- often at lower prices, too. Places without fiber networks sometimes pay massively more per Mbps than those with fiber, especially for business service. This makes having fiber, especially gigabit fiber, a distinct competitive advantage for cities trying to attract industry. Some cities are even taking matters into their own hands by building their own fiber networks, or trying to convince private companies to do so. It's possible that a lot of areas will be seeing near-gigabit networks from entities other than Google, and at reasonable prices.

Potential uses for incredibly high-speed Internet include the things a lot of people will think of, such as watching high-definition video with no delays or buffering, faster response times in online gaming, seamless video conferencing and very fast software download times. These will be nice for the typical customer, but could also lead to great things from heavy users. Researchers in academia and industry could collaborate with each other worldwide in real-time, possibly resulting in important discoveries. Artists could do the same, leading to some incredible creative endeavors. Online education could improve by leaps and bounds. And who knows what IT entrepreneurs will come up with?

Google's own stated aims in launching its experimental fiber network are to spur the creation of next-generation apps and services, learn new fiber optic network deployment techniques, provide a shared open-access network to give users a choice of service providers and make Internet access better and faster for all [source: Google Official Blog]. Hopefully more of us will be able partake of this vision in the near future.

Author's Note: How Google Fiber Works

I'm really looking forward to both gigabit Internet speeds and having a meaningful choice of broadband providers. Right now the choices in my neighborhood are 30 Mbps cable or 1 Mbps DSL. For an IT professional who streams movies voraciously, that's not really a choice at all.

Sure, initially it might just mean an end to buffering video and slow software downloads. But I can also see all kinds of possibilities for online collaboration in areas like scientific research, graphic arts, film and other fields where people do things that take a lot of bandwidth. While I may not be at the forefront of these advancements, I can silently applaud them, and support them by paying into the network. Well, that is when we get faster speeds here. For now, I'll just have to content myself with 30 Mbps Netflix binge-viewing sessions.

Related Articles

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