The Kansas City Star
They were flush with space nicely suited for hanging Google’s cables.
What’s more, the city and county governments are one, and that same Unified Government of Wyandotte County owns the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities and its utility poles. That figured to make negotiations over installing Google’s fiber easier.
Now it turns out that differences over where and how to hang wires on those poles, and what fees or installation costs may be required, have created a troublesome bump in plans to launch the project at “Google speed.”
The issue was dealt with in just 60 words in Google’s original agreement, but nine-plus months later engineers and lawyers are still trying to settle on common ground.
That hiccup in what figures to be a historic digital-age infrastructure upgrade in the city suggests that Google and Wyandotte County officials failed to mind the devilish details of their pact. The deal was hailed last spring as critical to landing Google. The California company said one reason it came to Kansas was because local officials could move quickly to make the project work.
Google has declined to comment on the dispute and delays that have set back the work in Kansas City, Kan., by months.
“We still don’t have an approval of the agreement,” said David Mehlhaff, a spokesman for the BPU. “Within the next week or two we ought to be able to hammer out the final details. We’re moving forward.”
Yet time has already been lost. Google has yet to publicly acknowledge any significant delay in the project. In an interview, Unified Government Mayor Joe Reardon insisted the project had not fallen behind schedule.
That stands at odds with public declarations made in the hoopla of Kansas City, Kan., being picked for the project in late March.
Google said then that it would begin signing up its first customers in the fourth quarter of 2011 and light up its service in the first quarter of this year. To date, while the company says it’s been putting intense effort into engineering the project, it hasn’t begun to sign up customers.
It still hasn’t, in fact, announced how much it will charge customers. It has not begun installing the fiber optic network needed for its service. And its prediction of beginning service has slipped to the first half of this year. Just how many months have been lost is difficult to sort out, especially with both the Unified Government and Google refusing to say.
That apparent delay stems from how, and precisely where, Google hopes to hang its data-shuttling glass wire.
Work near electric wires
Last spring’s agreement between the Unified Government and Google was remarkable because a mammoth company chose to bring a potentially game-changing project to town without asking for tax breaks or the other sorts of goodies so often used to lure attractive businesses.
Attachment A to the development agreement with the Unified Government says that Google can put its fiber optic lines in the same space typically used by cable TV and phone companies. It just needs to pay the going rate. Nothing special about that.
Still, the city did give up something, and the deal is noteworthy in that key respect.
The same single-paragraph clause says that “when Google is in the restricted BPU electrical supply space” — that highly regulated zone typically reserved for power lines — “fees shall not apply.” That freebie, the document states, would act as reimbursement for Google delivering its gigabit-per-second Internet connections for 130 locations such as schools, libraries and city buildings.
Although Google can avoid the attachment fees by hooking up close to power lines, it would swap that expense for a less-certain cost: the trickier job of installing cable far closer to electrical wires.
The dispute over the rules that will govern Google’s work on the poles also highlights what cable companies, to whom Google poses competition, see as favoritism.
Google and the BPU are trying to sort out ways that keep the cost of the project from ballooning while avoiding safety problems or service issues for electrical customers in Wyandotte County.
Utilities such as the BPU have the authority to override the safety codes and place communication wires among their power lines. But doing so requires more highly-trained technicians, usually journeyman linemen, who command hourly rates roughly 50 percent higher than workers who attach cables in the telecom space.
Google faces two choices: Pay the market rates for stretching its fiber optic lines much as AT&T and Time Warner Cable do in the space reserved for telecommunications; or shoulder the costs and complications of threading those same strands amid the electrical supply space.
In allowing Google next to its power lines, the BPU runs counter to the guidelines set by Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in the National Electrical Safety Code for “practical safeguarding of persons during the installation, operation, or maintenance of electric supply and communication lines.”
That code states that any communication or nonelectrical supply lines should be at least 40 inches below the power supply.
Still, it’s not uncommon for utilities to sanction telecommunication lines in that electrical supply space on utility poles.
Westar Energy, for instance, has fiber optic cables used for its own communications installed next to power lines on many of its poles. That communication cable is wrapped in steel to ground it as protection from being close to high-voltage wires. When hung lower on the poles, fiber optic lines are usually sheathed just in plastic.
Over in Missouri
The apparent trouble and renegotiation between Google and Wyandotte County officials differs markedly from the project on the Missouri side of the line.
When Google announced it was coming to Kansas City, Kan., it bested 1,100 other U.S. communities who’d courted the company to bring its ambitious Internet plan to them.
That score for Wyandotte County was also seen as a failure of Kansas City, Mo. But a month and a half later in May, Google said it would expand its project to the Missouri city as well. There was a distinct difference, and it had to do with utility poles.
In addition to the 19-page agreement Google cut with Kansas City, Mo., including a promise of free warp-speed Internet to 300 locations of the city’s choosing, the company also hashed out an agreement dozens of pages long with Kansas City Power & Light.
The idea that Google might nestle its fiber optic lines in the electric supply space, said KCP&L spokesman Chuck Caisley, was a “nonstarter.”
In fact, discussions over precisely where Google would be allowed to place its wires on KCP&L poles drove the protracted talks that took so much longer than in Kansas City, Kan.
“We did everything we could to have a defined, streamlined process where it’s very specific about the rights and responsibilities of all the parties,” Caisley said. “Because Google stressed the need to build quickly, and we needed to stress that we wouldn’t jeopardize the service to our customers.
“The holdup for us,” he said, “was to make sure that we understood and Google understood exactly what kind of an agreement we were getting into.”
Consequently, Caisley said KCP&L had no indication that the project on the Missouri side had strayed from Google’s original schedule.
Local cable companies said they don’t get into similar discussions about access to the upper reaches of utility poles because they’re only offered the telecom space and are expected to pay attachment fees accordingly.
Cable provider SureWest Communications sells service across Johnson County and other parts of the Kansas City area, including a few business customers in Wyandotte County.
Ken Johnson, the company’s vice president and chief technology officer, said his company’s not much interested in hanging its wires up high with power lines.
“It’s just much more cumbersome,” he said.
Then again, SureWest hasn’t been offered free access to the space. In most places it operates, SureWest provides free service to public buildings as part of franchise agreements, much as Google is promising. But local utilities still charge attachment fees to get on their poles.
“We would expect to have equal treatment,” Johnson said.
Matt Derrick, a local spokesman for Time Warner Cable, described the Google deal in Wyandotte County as a subsidy.
“Google’s not paying for the network” of utility poles, he said. “Somebody else already has.”
Mehlhaff, the BPU spokesman, doesn’t know whether other companies might get the same attachment rights granted to Google.
“We’d have to look at what the other requests are,” he said. “We have to do what we think is best overall for the community.”