The slow-going rollout of Google Fiber in San Antonio ground to a halt this week.
On Wednesday, City Manager Sheryl Sculley alerted city council members that construction on the city's elaborate Google Fiber system had been put on pause. The reason? “Constraints” of several public properties, as first reported by the Express-News.
In her letter to council members, Sculley says the city needs to "reevaluate" Google Fiber's placement of the so-called "fiber huts" — small buildings (50-feet by 30-feet) that act as transfer stations for its high-speed fiber-optic network. This announcement comes after northeast side residents blasted city management for allowing Google to build one of its first huts in an Oak Park neighborhood park.
While the standstill may temporarily subdue frustrated residents' outcries (which have now spread to other outlying neighborhoods), the action comes as Google is already backing away from fiber, having halted construction in no less than 11 major cities last year.
All of which raises the uneasy question: could sustained neighborhood objections, coupled with city bungling, ultimately threaten the future of Google Fiber in San Antonio?
Before Google started building these huts, most San Antonians were excited for the arrival of its high-speed wireless internet (well, aside from AT&T). And in a city with a stark disparity of internet
access along socio-economic lines, Google Fiber's proposed low-cost plans seemed like a smart fix.
But in April of last year, once Google began construction, the enthusiasm was tempered by a cluster of northeast side neighbors who weren't happy with the first of 17 proposed fiber huts going up in nearby Haskin Park. Oak Park neighbors called the building "a bit of an eye sore," and worried it would get in the way of children playing in the small park. Some neighbors said workers had cut their sewage lines while installing the hut. Others heard rumors that once the network turned on, it would be noisy. Opponents even made a website, MakeParksGreatAgain.com, filling people in on the issue.
Meanwhile, another fiber hut went up in West End Park, located in the heart of Woodlawn Lake neighborhood. No one complained. Instead, neighbors planned to disguise the fence surrounding it with an art installation.
Many still allege that Google bypassed city and state laws by not holding public hearings before starting construction — and blame the city for letting it happen. And once other neighborhoods caught wind of the 15 other proposed huts slated to going up in their favorite parks, the angry calls to city council members only increased.
Richard Medellin, former president of Highland Park neighborhood association, contends that Google needed to apply for at least seven permits before the city let them break ground in Haskin Park.
"The city's not following its own rules," Medellin said. "I'd expect a better job from the great minds at Google and the city manager's office." He believes the city only responded to the community's complaints because Mayor Ivy Taylor is up for reelection.
Regardless, the plan is now on hold. And Sculley says it's Google's fault.
“Unfortunately, Google fell short of their committed obligations to properly inform neighborhood residents about the construction schedule,” Sculley wrote in her Wednesday email. “While we value the benefits that will come to San Antonio as a result of Google’s fiber infrastructure, that progress should not come at the expense of the quality of life within our neighborhoods.”
The Mayor's office did not return to the Current
's request for comment.
It's unknown how long this pause will last, or if it will affect the 20-year, $1 million dollar lease the city signed with Google Fiber in 2014.
What we do know, however, is that Google Fiber's national footing is already tenuous. In October, the company announced it had put its installation plan on hold in eight different cities, including Dallas. And while Google continues to set up shop in Austin, its rollout there has also been rocky (the city received 363 complaints last year about trespassing, cut water lines, dumping, and other issues caused by Google Fiber construction).
Sculley noted that city staff will work with Google to relocate some slated huts this year. But that might not be enough for irked neighbors.
"I'm going to stay in the fight until those two illegal huts are removed," said Medellin. "We need to hold the city accountable for this."