Since 2006, residents have been pulling Google's free WiFi internet service into their homes using special signal repeaters, saving the expense of paying for an internet provider. But Google's service has never been as reliable as regular internet service, users say, and complaints appear to have increased recently.
A Google representative told the Voice that the company is planning upgrades that could improve the service's reliability.
Old Mill resident Kathleen Branyon says she and her neighbors have had little or no Google WiFi since Thanksgiving of 2011.
"Like many in Mountain View, we bought one of the recommended WiFi modems, and enjoyed free Google WiFi with virtually no hitches until October 2011," Branyon said in an email. "At that time, we began experiencing periodic service blackouts, without any warnings, lasting from a few minutes to several hours. Finally, just before Thanksgiving 2011, our neighborhood, along with several others, experienced a total blackout, which lasted until mid-January 2012."
She says service returned, but was "noticeably slower" before another blackout over the last three months.
Perhaps more frustrating is having a service that works much of the time, and quits unexpectedly. Branyon's frustrations mounted when her daughter's evening online homework was interrupted by Google WiFi failures. She says she would have to drive to her office in Palo Alto so her daughter could use the internet late at night, something that's happened multiple times.
"We will be in middle of an assignment — working, working, working — and all of the sudden, no internet," Branyon said. "Then we have to get in the car and go someplace so she can finish the assignment. That shouldn't happen."
To Whisman neighborhood resident Maria Venturini, the free service has definitely come with a cost. She said she was buying a plane ticket for her husband to fly to a funeral when the service stopped. When she was able to finally buy the plane ticket the next day, the price had gone up "several hundred dollars."
"When you depend on this service, it costs you money," Venturini said. "Most likely we'll have to get paid service because this is not working."
Google has created a hotline for users to call when their service cuts out. But Google does not return such calls, which agitates Branyon.
"They don't call you back, they don't care," she said, echoing a common complaint. "I think it's a colossal joke on the city of Mountain View."
Whole neighborhoods are having long Google WiFi blackouts, according to some complaints.
"I and a lot of other Googlers have not been able to access Google WiFi for a month," wrote R. Michael of Sylvan Avenue in a recent letter to the Voice. "The node at 600/700 block of Sylvan/DeVoto Avenues as well as other areas are not cooperating. I have made several calls to inform them of this issue and still we all do not have this service working, The Google name is being tarnished by this lack of assistance and professionalism."
For its part, Google is planning upgrades to the system that could make the network more reliable, said Jenna Wandres, Google communications associate. Users now demand more bandwidth to watch movies and TV shows over the network using sites like Hulu and Netflix, though use of the network hasn't increased recently, Wandres said. There were 25,000 users of the network every month over the last year, up from 19,000 in 2009, when upgrades were also promised by Google.
Google WiFi is "still operating based on its original design from six years ago," Wandres said. "Youtube and Netflix weren't as ubiquitous. We are working on a plan to add more bandwidth and make connections easier. We're committed to it. We're working on all sorts of upgrades. We want our users to be able to enjoy all the rich content that's available online."
Wandres couldn't comment on the specifics of why the network appears to be failing lately in some areas of the city.
And while those who are complaining are sure their hardware isn't the problem, some users have had better luck with newer WiFi modems. Google doesn't endorse any particular model.
"Obviously, the device you use to connect to web affects your web speed," Wandres said. "Older devices make your web connection slower generally."
Addressing suspicions that Google throttles the bandwidth of heavy users — such as those who watch movies on Netflix — Wandres said, "We don't have bandwidth caps."
And while Google has an agreement that would allow Google to offload responsibility of the network to the city under certain circumstances, there is "no plan to offload it to the city," Wandres said.
"We do have a team that's working on this," Wandres said. "We're committed to the network in Mountain View and we are going to make it better. We want people to enjoy the abundance of the internet."
For some users, it can't happen soon enough.
"This is how we communicate these days," Venturini said. "It's like if 30 years ago, your telephone lines were intermittently out. When you are cut off, it's your lifeline that's been cut off."