One of the benefits of living in Kansas City is the availability of Google Fiber as my high-speed internet provider. This is something the rest of the country desperately wants access to. It was already installed at my house here in Kansas City when I moved in, and the Google Fiber installation techs merely made a few changes:

  1. They upgraded the fiber jack to a new version 2 of the jack which uses power over Ethernet (one less power supply in the outlet)
  2. They upgraded the router to a new version
  3. They added the TV service.

People who have the service here in the Kansas City area generally give it rave reviews. My installation went very smoothly, and I immediately went to work checking it out and configuring things.

Google Fiber

The speed of Google Fiber ranges from 5 Mbps (free), 100 Mbps ($50-ish) to 1 Gbps ($70-ish), with TV available with the 1 Gbps package for an additional $60, plus $5/each for additional TV connections.  This is good value for the money.  One gigabit per second upload/download is what Google Fiber is known (and desired) for, but it is important to be aware that the commonly used WiFi protocols aren’t this fast.  Also if a LAN (hard-wire) connection is used from a device to the router’s RJ-45 Ethernet ports, the device, the cable and any switches en-route must all support 1 Gbps speeds (1000-BaseT) to make use of the full 1 Gbps capacity.

Regardless, the 1 Gbps capacity ensures that two or more people watching videos are not going to overwhelm the bandwidth on the WAN side.

The technical side of the Google Fiber router

I am a software developer and, as with many tech savvy people, I want to customize parts of my network a certain way. Normally, I put my own router (using DD-WRT firmware) in front of the ISP’s router they provide, or just don’t use the ISP router.  Google Fiber allows this, unless you use the TV service as well.  For that you need their router.

Where I live in Kansas City, I don’t really need the advanced features of DD-WRT since I have no remote access needs at this house.  Usage here is mostly outbound client connections to the world.

Google uses centralized management for their router and TV, and they have done quite a good job at making the interface simple and efficient, yet keeping enough tech-savvy options for most power users. Centralized management has good points and bad points.  One of the good points of the centralized manager is that I can use an iPhone or Android application to monitor and manage the network without opening special ports on the router for access. There is also an app for the TV which allows DVR management, recording scheduling, and TV guides.

The penalty with the centralized manager is the man-in-the-middle effect.  If I make a change, it has to first register in Google’s servers.  After it bounces around in Google’s “cloud” for a certain amount of time, it will eventually be sent as an update to my router.  This is usually not a problem, since I can wait a few seconds or minutes for an infrequent change to take effect.  Where it was a problem was in my initial setup.  I was setting reserved IP addresses one after another, and at one point the web UI was disallowing reserving an IP address thinking it was in use–when it wasn’t. I had to walk away from the setup and come back over 15 minutes later to resume it.  It took that long for the backlog of changes to propagate among servers and get back in sync.

The real negative to central management is that Google is deciding what firmware runs in the router, and also can arbitrarily change not only the firmware but the web management interface to it at will. This is the penalty of software as a service (SaaS) which I wrote about previously in another post.  But having worked at Google for 2 years and seen the commitment they have to security, along with the needs I have for this installation, I have no problem with this central management.

Google’s network setup is really well designed for about 90-95% of the people who use it.  It incorporates DMZ, DHCP, DNS, DDNS (but doesn’t support all of the providers, e.g. DuckDNS), port range forwarding, and port forwarding.  The two things it lacks (from my tech perspective):

The ability to make a reserved IP device which is outside of the DHCP range.

The DD-WRT family of firmware, and even most router manufacturers’ firmware allow you to declare as a reserved IP address for a device, even when the DHCP range is defined as something like 100 to 150.  It is a happy medium between static which the client machine knows and doesn’t need to inform the router, and the client machine always getting the same IP address via DHCP from the router (virtual static) and the router being aware of the device being seen/online.

Another practical advantage of doing this is to quickly identify foreign hardware.  I assign static addresses to all the devices I own in a two digit range, but other devices (guests) are assigned DHCP addresses in the three digit range.  Visually, I can immediately tell that a device with a three-digit number is not a device I own.  Google assigns DHCP numbers from the pool, but only let’s you reserve an IP address for the device within the range of DHCP.  This causes the IP addresses to interleave among each other in a sorted list.  It takes further scrutiny (read: takes longer) to see what is not mine.

Arguably, DHCP should only assign numbers from its assigned range of numbers, but if the device is known and has a static address assigned, enforcing the range is really a moot point. I would prefer that this DHCP range enforcement on reserved addresses be removed.

Port forwarding has no filtering for the client (or origin) address

In DD-WRT, there is a filter for a single IP address or range of IP addresses for client endpoints which are allowed to use the port forwarding for a particular entry.  This is very useful in a remote desktop connection, where the clients allowed to connect can be only one or two IP addresses which are frequently used.  Google’s router does not support this.  Port forwarding can be used by anything in the world which finds the port open at your address.  This means that client filtering has to be added to the firewall on the device hosting the service, instead of at the router.

Google Fiber TV

The TV box is about the size of an Apple TV box, and also contains the DVR (essentially a 1TB SSD drive).  It has a far smaller footprint than the Scientific Atlanta and other cable/DVR boxes used by other providers.  And having an SSD drive, the device is dead quiet.

The remote is lightweight, and even has a motion activated LED back light that stays until about 2 seconds of non-motion.  It’s a very nice feature for low lighting.

The TV menu looks very modern, and has the standard Google layout familiar on the web sites.  The navigation is quite easy and logical.  In addition to the channel guides and the DVR, there is also a page for apps.

One thing I really like about the TV service is that the guide will not display channels to which you are not subscribed.  This is a nice change, from other services (Time Warner, Verizon FiOS) which try to market other channels to you via the guide.

There is a real negative in the TV service.  If you have something recorded on your DVR, and the internet connection goes down, the TV is practically unusable.  You can not even get to the DVR menu to watch a show.  Verizon FiOS will still allow you to watch a recorded show when their fiber optic connection is not available, and they also cache the TV schedule so you can set up recordings of future shows if the internet goes offline.  Once the internet connection is back, they just forward the new schedules stored locally in the box the their central server.

This over dependency on the internet connection is a serious Achilles heel, which I hope Google intends to change. My fiber service has gone down twice in the last 30 days: once due to a storm, and another from something happening to fiber line coming into the house.  Each outage was over 72 hours before technicians could arrive to check it out.  During those outages, watching DVD or BlueRay was our onlyoption.  For a company that promotes connectivity to the world’s information, it can sure make the world look awfully small when it goes down for a period of time.

Reliability and Continuity of Service

The service has been quite reliable excepting for the two physical outages listed above.

Google payments

Google also not only requires electronic payment for its fiber service, but crosses a dangerous line with me: auto-billing.  As a personal policy, I do not normally allow this.  It is a red flag to customer service, and is a negative to Google’s ISP offering.  For now, Google’s customer service has been excellent, so I am overlooking this policy.

The service will email you the bill on the 1st of the month, and extract the payment on the 10th if you haven’t initiated the payment yourself by that time.

Final Notes

Google Fiber is a good service for a non-technical end user, or a tech user that isn’t building a custom subnet for personal services in the house.  I recommend it highly if you fall into these categories of users.

Note: I began writing this before Google publicly announced they are halting their expansion for an indeterminate amount of time, and the CEO of the Fiber division is leaving.  I don’t see this in any way as an indication that the service should be dropped for another carrier.  I think Google is doing what it has done in the past: rethink and regroup.  Google Fiber is a utility, and has to play by utility rules and regulations.  They’ll figure it out, and then the expansion will resume.

I’ve heard quite a lot of smug quips coming out of Verizon and Time Warner about Google’s difficulties in getting Fiber going the way Google wanted it to.  Those smug quips will ultimately become their Achilles heel, if they are not careful.

Back in the late 1970s, renegade micro PC makers were snubbing IBM for not being able to change their business model and get into the PC market.  One of the representatives at IBM had a neat statement: “We are like an elephant.  It may take us a while to take a step, but when we do… it is a big step.”  And IBM got into the market shortly thereafter, gaining a good share of the PC market for a while.