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Meet Access, the Google Unit That’s Taking On Comcast and the Rest of the Cable Biz

The hodgepodge empire of one of Larry Page's favorite entrepreneur-execs.

Google Fiber

Alphabet, Google’s newfangled conglomeration, arrived in August, but we will not see its first financial figures until January, when the company reports two sets of earnings — Google and the “other bets.” Each subsidiary will not break out its own performance, but the earnings reports will offer some view into their costs and output. Before then, Re/code is unpacking one Alphabet company a week*, presenting the facts, figures and, just maybe, the financials behind the silos of the world’s most ambitious company. First was Nest. Number two: Access and Energy.

Around the launch of Google Fiber four years ago, long before Alphabet, Google’s leaders considered spinning out the high-speed Internet offering as its own business under then-CFO Patrick Pichette. The plan was scrapped, according to several former employees.

But it reveals the concern Google placed on its audacious attempt to built its own, capital-intensive broadband service to take on established players like Comcast, AT&T and Time Warner Cable.

Divisions: Fiber, OnHub routers, Titan drones, Sunroof solar

Operating Expenses: $1 billion-$2 billion (estimated for 2016)

Key Execs: Craig Barratt, CEO; Dennis Kish, VP, Fiber; Jill Szuchmacher, director of business development, Fiber

Two years later, Fiber would come under a different high-ranking Googler: SVP Craig Barratt. The former Qualcomm exec joined Google in 2013 and was quickly handed the keys to Fiber plus an amorphous group of initiatives touching broadband infrastructure, wireless communications and clean energy.

Now Barratt is an Alphabet CEO, yet his subsidiary could be the most nebulous. It contains a patchwork of the company’s projects on Internet access, energy, telecommunications and robotics, but not every one of them (some are in Google X and others remain part of Google).

But Access does include Fiber, which may be the most developed business outside of Google’s core. And it might be its most capital intensive — current CFO Ruth Porat has named Access as a spending priority, and analysts project that the Fiber unit will eat as much as $2 billion next year.

Eventually, Alphabet may offer a more cohesive strategy for how Fiber fits in the umbrella business. Access and Energy will soon be re-branded with a new name, sources familiar with the company said.

What ties Access together may be the founding ethos of Fiber. The project was born after Google’s unexpected move to bid on wireless spectrum in 2007. Then-CEO Eric Schmidt was obsessed with cutting down barriers between Google and its end customers, according to people who worked on the founding team. At the time, the companies sitting between Google and regular users included Microsoft, via its operating systems and browser, and the Internet service providers. Fiber would fill the second gap — and, in a few short years, mark a significant dent in Google’s investment with no immediate payoff on its balance sheet.

If Nest is the test of Alphabet’s ability to rope in a startup and operate it independently, Access will gauge whether Larry Page’s enterprise can string together skunkworks born inside Google and create a viable, profitable business, not just a costly one.

What to Know

For starters, let’s take a tally of the projects that sit under Access (that we know about):

  • Fiber: Today, Google’s fiber-optic broadband and TV provider is up and running in three cities — Kansas City, Austin and Provo, Utah — and is digging ground on six others. Last month, Fiber announced three new cities in its sights, bringing the total potential cities to nine. It hasn’t offered a timeline for opening business in the cities.
  • OnHub: Teams under Barratt have fiddled around with wireless hardware since his arrival. Their first public fruit is OnHub, a $200 home broadband router. A second model, made with Asus, came out last month with new intelligence features and the old Google name attached.
  • Project Link: Two years ago, Google announced this Fiber-for-emerging-markets project, starting with Kampala, Uganda. Last month, it said it built 700 kilometers of fiber across the city and added a new one in Ghana.
  • RailTel partnership: Last September, Google announced it was teaming with RailTel, an Indian public broadband provider, to outfit 400 railway stations in the country with Wi-Fi. It came from Google CEO Sundar Pichai, but the project falls under Access.
  • Project Sunroof: This is one of a few energy projects Google has made public, an outgrowth of its partnership and investment in SolarCity. There’s not much to it yet: Homeowners can plug in an address and Google spits out a “personalized roof analysis,” making it easier to buy solar panels.
  • Project Titan: The product of Google’s purchase of Titan Aerospace, maker of solar-powered drones, may show us something soon: Last month, it filed paper with the FAA registering two unmanned vehicles. (Don’t confuse this with Project Wing, the drone delivery thing inside Google X.)

Who to Watch

The hodgepodge nature of Access could be a byproduct of Alphabet’s nascent formation. The conglomerate is still hunting for a chief to lead its robotics effort, which could take on some Access projects. And Makani, the wind company Google acquired, could conceivably house other clean-energy initiatives, but it has yet to spin out of Google X.

 Craig Barratt, CEO, Access and Energy (the Alphabet company’s working title)
Craig Barratt, CEO, Access and Energy (the Alphabet company’s working title)

Another reason Access is so disparate is its chief. Barratt, an Australian who once ran Qualcomm’s chip unit Atheros, is described as a prototypical Google exec: A patient, capable manager, but foremost a brilliant engineer. He’s also a favorite of Page, Alphabet’s CEO. Former Googlers said the Access boss is Page’s go-to entrepreneur — if Google had hatched projects around telecom tech, particularly those that were rudderless, Page would hand them to Barratt.

He does have capable underlings, however. Dennis Kish, another former Qualcomm exec, took over the Fiber business last year. But most people who know Fiber associated it with Kish’s predecessor, Milo Medin, the driving force behind the project. Medin is now working on policy issues, particularly increasing broadband competition, as well as yet-to-be-unveiled Access initiatives.

Another name to know in Fiber is Jill Szuchmacher. The nine-year Google business development vet, based in New York, is responsible for Fiber’s expansion. And with that, she must handle many of the corporate and political negotiations necessary to navigate the entrenched industry, which takes on the force of a monopoly in most places.

Where It Stands

Unless Access is hiding a massive moonshot, Fiber is its most advanced and expensive arm. From the little figures we can grok on Fiber, it may be a bigger concern now for telcos than the pay TV business.

Analysts pegged Fiber’s broadband reach, in its three existing cities, at 427,000 households and 96,000 businesses. It has hit decent penetration in its existing cities, threatening incumbents like AT&T and CenturyLink, which are burdened with expensive wireline networks and slower speeds.

Fiber’s paid video service has had a slower go, in part because Google failed to deliver a unique TV offering. Also, because it’s a costly endeavor.

Carlos Kirjner, a senior analyst at Alliance Bernstein, has dug into Fiber’s numbers more than anyone outside of Google, conducting door-to-door surveys in its existing cities. Even he’s in the dark on how much it’s spending. Depending on the pace of Fiber’s expansion, Kirjner estimates that unit could claim between $1 billion and $2 billion in capital expenditures next year. (A rep from Access would not comment on spending.)

The conventional wisdom around Fiber is that it’s meant to spur the broadband industry to move faster, a move that, in turn, opens the tap to Google’s services. “It’s really a loss leader out to disrupt the marketplace,” said Anurag Lal, CEO of mobile company Infinite Convergence.

Google’s conceit here isn’t necessarily to supplant current service providers but to spur them to offer better speeds. It has worked so far — on paper, at least. In Fiber’s existing and potential cities, its largest rivals, AT&T and Comcast**, have announced matching gigabit fiber-optic connections to come. The logic applies to most Access initiatives. OnHub, for example, may not generate huge sales, but it could spur competing router companies to cut costs and speed up connections.

But you don’t really need super-fast Internet to stream YouTube. And that’s not what Access is after. Instead, it’s laying the necessary broadband foundation for the tech Alphabet expects to see in our homes in the not-too-distant future — robotics, telemedicine and the futuristic like.

Still, the loss-leader theory only goes so far. As Kirjner points out, driving broadband incumbents everywhere requires that Fiber be everywhere, which requires a profitable business. Unless it borrows ad infinitum from the Google search kitty.

Recent figures from Fiber assured him slightly of this profitable direction. His research shows strong consumer satisfaction in Fiber’s existing markets. And, as of June, Fiber’s paid video subscriber numbers in Kansas City marked around 42 percent growth over six months.

“The ongoing expansion reinforces our view that the early results in Kansas City and Provo give Google Fiber hope that it could indeed scale up a profitable business,” Kirjner wrote in a research note last month. “Hope and not certainty.”

* So far, Alphabet has confirmed the existence of nine subsidiaries, including Google. It’s very likely that an additional one or two — or many — may get the official stamp before the earnings report in January. Rest assured, we will tell you about it if it happens.

** Comcast owns NBCUniversal, an investor in Re/code parent company Vox Media.

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