Connecting the Digital Dots: A Q&A with Gabriel Stricker of Google Fiber
Despite the perception that internet by now is ubiquitous, the truth is that 27 percent of Americans do not have a broadband connection, according to the Pew Research Center. Gabriel Stricker is a key part of Google’s plan to change that—and turn the business of internet providership upside down in the process.
The “digital divide” is the disparity, often based on income, education level, race, age and community type, in people’s access to information and communications technologies. Google Fiber aims to bridge this gap with the implementation of widespread, affordable broadband at speeds of up to one gigabit per second.
Gabriel Stricker, the vice president of policy and communications at Google Fiber, has a personal motivation for fighting this inequality. Stricker grew up in a small Northern California town where internet speed was only a little better than dial-up. Then he took an eye-opening trip to South Korea. While cabbing from Seoul’s airport to his hotel, he discovered that his Wi-Fi connection was at least twice as fast in the cab as what he’d been using in his home in the U.S. The experience inspired the work he is doing today to change the nature of internet access in the United States and close the gap.
Making an impact, however, requires a “shoot for the moon” mentality and a willingness to rethink even the basics. We spoke with Stricker to learn more about innovation at Google Fiber, the digital divide, and his bold vision for a connected future.
Why is the global digital divide such a strong motivator for you and for Google Fiber?
High-speed internet facilitates the use of technology and human interaction in ways that we’ve speculated about, but have not yet gotten to put into practice. Absent the intervention of an effort like Google Fiber, we have not been on track to catch up with other countries in terms of internet speeds. When Google Fiber goes into a city, you start to see that gap close dramatically. Now, when you talk about the cities in the world with high-speed connectivity, Kansas City, Kansas, is mentioned in the same breath as Seoul, South Korea.
Kansas City, of course, was the first city to get Google Fiber in 2011. How have things changed for people there over the last five years?
In addition to offering new opportunities for entrepreneurs and tech innovators, we’ve seen Google Fiber transform the lives of people who simply wouldn’t have been able to afford internet access. One of the most gratifying moments during my time with Google Fiber came last year, when we made an announcement in Kansas City with then-U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro about our intention to connect public housing with our gigabit offering. We were at a public housing project and got to hear from many of the residents about the impact of having high-speed home internet service. The stories we heard were a stark reminder of how significant the digital divide is in this country.
Suddenly, the person who used to have to go to McDonald’s for Wi-Fi and fill out a job application on their phone could actually search the web, see all the jobs that are out there, and easily apply from their home at hours that are convenient for them. The contrast is just unbelievable.
Can you talk a little bit about the role of innovation in your work when approaching such a large issue?
Historically, Google was trying to do the opposite of other more traditional companies by baking innovation into every pocket of the company, but they took it a step further where they said, “Look, a software engineer isn’t going to be responsible for innovation just within his or her own team; down the line, every single function is going to be that person’s responsibility.” It created this almost competitive culture around innovation. Within Google Fiber, we still have that culture because we are a startup. And so it starts to become much more about scrappy innovation. It’s people trying to out-innovate one another but in a healthy way.
Google is not always thought of as an underdog, but it sounds like you’ve taken on this underdog mentality on behalf of the people.
It’s worth noting that, if you really rewind to the earliest days of Google, it was the underdog. If you can imagine a world where you could go to cocktail parties and someone was saying, “How do you find things on the internet?” And people say, “Well, I use Alta Vista.” At that time Google itself was the underdog. In many ways, I think Google Fiber is us getting back to the roots of the company itself.
This project is considered a “moonshot” – a high-risk, high-reward initiative that could have a massive impact if successful. How do you deal with the threat of failure?
When the ambition of what you’re trying to do transcends the typical or the normal, you have permission to do the proverbial shoot for the moon. Larry Page [co-founder of Google and CEO of Alphabet] often talks about how it sometimes takes just as much energy to solve enormous problems as it does to solve relatively accessible problems, so you might as well focus on the more ambitious ones. If your sights are set on something unprecedented, even when you “come up short,” you end up accomplishing great things.
And in the case of Google Fiber, the question was, “Hey what if we give everyone access to the same connectivity that currently only the best-equipped companies have?” Along the way, we’ve stumbled upon a number of technological advancements that have already made deployment of that technology faster, more affordable. And we’re trying to continue that trend.
The discomfort of the moonshot comes from working on something that is worlds away from anything that has ever been attempted before. But what do you have to lose? We’re trying to do something that no one has figured out. There’s something quite liberating about that.