Image ©John Branch for the Rivard Report, 2016.
San Antonio is the largest and one of the most complicated cities that Google Fiber has selected to roll out its super fast internet service in, City Manager Sheryl Sculley told City Council on Wednesday during a briefing on the internet giant’s progress towards its goal of installing 4,000 miles of fiber-optic cable across the sprawling city.
“We have witnessed some of the growing pains of that process with fiber deployment and we’re seeing progress, though, in the business development and community,” Sculley said.
But for John Whitsett, who works in commercial real estate, these “growing pains” represent mismanagement of public park land and a City that, in its haste to encourage new technology and business, let down residents that have to live with Google Fiber’s new infrastructure.
On Aug. 4, Whitsett watched a semi-truck pull in to Haskin Park, a one-acre pocket park across from his home in the Oak Park-Northwood neighborhood. It was carrying a “network hut,” a critical component of the fiber-optic network that acts as a distribution point for up to 12,000 households. Much of the park was closed to the public for weeks before and after the hut dropped down. The hut and its loud air-conditioning units are steps away from some of his neighbors’ back patios – Patios that used to look out onto a park.
“Don’t get me wrong, I was ready to get rid of my (internet service provider) and sign up for Google Fiber,” Whitsett told the Rivard Report while snapping photos of the semi-truck, “but not when it’s at the expense of parkland.”
City Council approved a 20-year $1 million master lease agreement with Google in March 2014, under then-Mayor Julián Castro. The document outlined the 17 hut locations the company would need in order to build out its network, but as it began installation on the first huts and cables in April, concerned neighbors began to contact their Council members.
Five of Google’s huts will be located within public parks, two at libraries, five at fire stations, one at a police station, one on a vacant parcel, and one near a drainage feature. All are located on City property, and there is at least one hut in each Council district.
“In the excitement about bringing high-speed fiber (to San Antonio), I’m not sure there was a focus on the size and the locations,” Sculley told City Council on Wednesday. The huts are 300 sq. ft. – about 10 feet high, 30 feet long, and 10 feet deep – the size of a small apartment or efficiency. “There still is a lot of work to do with the community as we talk about those locations. And we’re learning along the way.”
A network hut in District 1, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said, was slated for installation inside a soccer field at West End Park. It was instead built seven feet away where it now sits surrounded by a chain link fence. The hut can not be considered aesthetically pleasing by any stretch of the imagination.
Treviño said an effort is underway to include a public art element on the fence.
“Communication efforts with all the fiber agencies, City Council, and residents has increased and we’re still working to improve that,” Sculley said.
But communication efforts with Google are still difficult, according to City staff.
This was clearly demonstrated on Wednesday when Sculley had to specifically call on a Google Fiber representative sitting in the audience, who declined to speak earlier, to answer a question posed by Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) about Google Fiber’s recent lay-offs and plans to cut back on expansion projects.
“It does not impact San Antonio,” the representative said, who was only identified as Tyler and was not available for further comment after the meeting. “There were a number of markets that we were previously exploring – expanding to – and we’re pausing (the exploration of) those markets. We’ve already begun construction here in San Antonio and things are moving forward.”
Google Fiber officially announced in August 2015 that San Antonio would become the ninth Fiber City in the U.S.
Because Google has no existing infrastructure like its main competitor AT&T,it has a steeper hill to climb. AT&T Fiber, formerly known as GigaPower, already provides its megabit service to more than 150,000 customers in San Antonio.
“AT&T has been here for a long time so they have a lot of infrastructure … 20% of poles out there are owned by AT&T,” said Mike Frisbie, director of Transportation and Capital Improvements.
AT&T has 117 active permits for fiber optic installation crews and has completed 755 miles of its goal of 2,455 miles by the end of next year.
Google Fiber has 10 active permits as it is working on building out its “backbone” of main lines that stretches from the far-Westside to the far-Eastside. That backbone largely avoids inner city and low-income neighborhoods by circling up north. A north-south loop is planned for the second phase. Google has not yet began offering its service to any customers in San Antonio and representatives decline to provide a timeline for when the service will come online, but the City estimates a 4-5 year deployment duration.
Google has, however, partnered with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the San Antonio Housing Authority in the ConnectHome initiative that brings technology education and high-speed internet to housing projects across the city, as noted by Mayor Ivy Taylor on Wednesday.
On June 20, subcontractors working for Google dug into Haskin Drive, busting a SAWS water line. SAWS paid $3,452 to fix it, according to documents obtained via an open records request. Another Google subcontractor caused a $16,022 break on March. An AT&T subcontractor caused a $9,038 break in January 2015.
There will soon be 225 different crews cabling fiber in San Antonio, SAWS Chief Operating Officer and Senior Vice President Steve Clouse said during a SAWS board meeting in August. The publicly-owned utility had a series of major water line breaks over the summer, prompting SAWS to start looking into ways to educate subcontractors.
There is a “goldrush of fiber optic” installations in San Antonio, Clouse said. “We have to up our game to work through what will probably be a four-year period.”
There are several other companies that the City has contracts with to implement fiber optics, including Zayo Group, FiberLight, and Conterra, but they have not been fully executed and do not have any active permits in the City.
The challenge subcontractors and fiber companies face is that water lines that connect homes to main street lines are not always clearly marked, Clouse added.
Some bills have been sent out to contractors, but it’s not always clear whose fault it is.
“If they’re not a contractor for SAWS … it’s difficult to leverage that much,” Clouse said. “We are sending them a bill. I don’t know how successful we’ll be in recovering that.”
Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni said on Wednesday that the City, CPS Energy, and SAWS are developing a system that penalizes repeat offenders by requiring them to attend training sessions before work can continue.
In an attempt to avoid neighborhood disruption and streamline processes, the City has created a 14-member Fiber Deployment Management Team with funds from the 2017 City Budget. This team will track permitting and installations, but – perhaps most importantly – it will also enhance community outreach about coming construction work.
Neighborhood associations and City Council members will now receive a 30-day notice via mail/email before work begins, followed by electronic message boards that will inform passersby seven days prior, and three days prior affected residents and businesses will receive a door hanger. Signs, crew uniforms, and vehicles will also need to include more information about the project, subcontractor, and utility owner (Google, AT&T, etc.).
“What we’re doing is we’re looking way ahead now at the hut locations to look at the property – look at the ownership issues, covenant issues, and also placement, aesthetics – well ahead (of installation),” Frisbie said. “These huts are not going in quickly.”
In District 7, it became apparent that there was a deed restriction on the property planned for a hut.
“The property was donated to the City, and (according to the deed) you couldn’t put any structure on it,” Sculley said. The only allowable amenity was a swimming pool.
City Council approved a Micro-Trench Pilot Program in September that will be used for the next hut slated for installation in District 6. The new equipment slips cable between the asphalt of a street and concrete of a curb instead of through lawns and sidewalks.
Councilman Mike Gallagher represents District 10, where Haskin Park is located.
“We were really part of what I think we should call the experiment when we first got started,” Gallagher said. “It was a rough beginning, but I’ve really been pleased with the team effort.”
He recognized that neighbors were “very, very” upset about it and praised City staff for working with the neighborhood association and finding funding for landscaping around the hut.
“Let’s keep that communication open,” Gallagher said to his colleagues. “Be ready when it starts happening in your district.”
For Whitsett, however, the fight isn’t over.
He questions the legality of the entire process: from the temporary closing of the park to the design of the huts, from planning and zoning to the $1 million rent that Google will pay and whether or not the City actually owns the land.
“The whole thing is about abuse of power,” said Whitsett, who is considering legal action. “They cut the park in half, functionally. … It shouldn’t be there. It’s against the law.”
Zanoni and City staff have met with Whitsett on several occasions.
“Haskin (hut) is legitimate,” Zanoni said. “There are no restrictions in place either, based on our attorney’s review of it.”
Councilman Ray Lopez (D6) is bracing himself for impact once construction starts for Google Fiber infrastructure in his district.
“It’s going to be up to the City to have really, really good records (of fiber infrastructure),” Lopez said after the meeting, and to encourage subcontractors to contact the City, SAWS, and CPS Energy before work begins.