yesMike MurphyNone
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

Politics

Alphabet scraps one plan to build and starts up another

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs shuts down its project in Toronto, as another Alphabet-backed infrastructure investment gets off the ground.

The Toronto of the future Sidewalk Labs imagined, in a project that's now stopping.

The Toronto of the future Sidewalk Labs imagined, in a project that's now stopping.

Rendering: Courtesy of Sidewalk Labs

After three years and little progress, Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs is giving up on its dream of building a tech-focused neighborhood in Toronto. Citing "unprecedented economic uncertainty" — while glossing over the fact that project had not been signed off on by local government officials, and was roundly disliked by a large, vocal group of critics — CEO Daniel Doctoroff pulled the plug on the project Thursday.

But as one project fades, another rises. Two former Googlers, Jonathan Winer and Brian Barlow, spun off a new company from Alphabet, confusingly called the Sidewalk Infrastructure Partnership despite being separate from Sidewalk Labs. The new venture (SIP for short) has $400 million in funding from Alphabet and the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, and Sidewalk's Doctoroff is also mentioned in the company's SEC filings. It plans to tackle large-scale infrastructure problems of the future with investments, including plastics recycling, highways for self-driving cars, and high-speed internet in rural and urban environments.

Whether money or tech prowess alone are enough to pull off the sorts of grand designs SIP is dreaming of is unclear. But if Sidewalk Labs' own history is any indication, it won't be easy — nor will it be cheap. Infrastructure projects of the scale SIP plans to contend with take considerable resources, time, and generally local and government approval. SIP's Winer told Fortune it plans to work with local officials in the areas it chooses to invest or operate in.

SIP has a "novel tech-powered approach to modernize the [U.S.'] infrastructure like never before," according to Fortune, which will change "everything from recycling to how America deploys driverless cars." To date, the only patent that Sidewalk Labs (the original one) has been awarded relates to connected trash chutes. Some have argued that the Google-powered city would never see the light of day, and the current pandemic certainly offers some cover to fold a project of this scale. Will SIP be any different?

Although $400 million is a lot of cash for a young startup to raise in its Series A, it doesn't really encapsulate the scale of traditional infrastructure investments. SIP's website references how the steam engine and automobile reshaped infrastructure investment in the U.S., and argues that "technology will again revolutionize infrastructure and transform the way the world lives."

But building infrastructure is expensive, especially in America, where contractors have to navigate an entrenched web of bureaucracy and history. The city of New York is in various stages of completing some of the most costly infrastructure projects the world has ever seen. It's working to connect the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Station in a project that has cost over $11 billion, and completed just part of a proposed new subway line down Second Avenue. Both projects cost well over $1.5 billion per mile to complete. (By comparison, Paris forecast building 120 miles of tracks for a subway line extension in 2016 for about $25 billion. It is well underway.)

Meanwhile, the global cost of rolling out 5G cellular networks is expected to be in the trillions. In 2019 alone, the four major U.S. networks spent over $55 billion on capital expenditures — largely on upgrading their networks to 5G. Closer to home, Alphabet has already been spending heavily on its own connectivity efforts. Google Fiber and Loon, two Alphabet companies housed in the company's "Other Bets" reporting structure, are tasked with providing access to fiber-optic internet and cellular in remote areas, respectively. Although Alphabet doesn't break out how much each Other Bets company loses, the division routinely loses hundreds of millions of dollars per quarter. And before Alphabet had spun out so many companies, it looked as if Fiber investments alone could have cost the company a few hundred million in 2018.

Building private roads or rails isn't cheap, either. The Orchard Pond Parkway, a 5.2-mile stretch of private road in Florida that opened in 2016, cost $17 million to build. In 2006, Indiana leased a 157-mile stretch of highway to an Australian-Spanish consortium, which filed for bankruptcy in 2014. Florida's Brightline (now owned by Virgin Trains), which operates the only private train line in the US, forecast the total cost of building its line at around $2.5 billion.

None of this is to say that SIP, which is aware of the "political headwinds" Sidewalk Labs has faced, can't find new ways to get work pushed through governments. But given Sidewalk and Alphabet's struggles to date, the road ahead looks rocky. In much the same way that the Valley loves to remind startups working with physical products that "hardware is hard," it's worth remembering that infrastructure is expensive.

People

Expensify CEO David Barrett: ‘Most CEOs are not bad people, they're just cowards’

"Remember that one time when we almost had civil war? What did you do about it?"

Expensify CEO David Barrett has thoughts on what it means for tech CEOs to claim they act apolitically.

Photo: Expensify

The Trump presidency ends tomorrow. It's a political change in which Expensify founder and CEO David Barrett played a brief, but explosive role.

Barrett became famous last fall — or infamous, depending on whom you ask — for sending an email to the fintech startup's clients, urging them to reject Trump and support President-elect Joe Biden.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

The current state-of-the-art quantum computers are a tangle of wires. And that can't be the case in the future.

Photo: IBM Research

The iconic image of quantum computing is the "Google chandelier," with its hundreds of intricately arranged copper wires descending like the tendrils of a metallic jellyfish. It's a grand and impressive device, but in that tangle of wires lurks a big problem.

"If you're thinking about the long-term prospects of quantum computing, that image should be just terrifying," Jim Clarke, the director of quantum hardware at Intel, told Protocol.

Keep Reading Show less
Dan Garisto
Dan Garisto is a freelance science journalist who specializes in the physical sciences, with an emphasis on particle physics. He has an undergraduate degree in physics and is based in New York.
Election 2020

Google says it’s fighting election lies, but its ads fund them

A new report finds that more than 1,600 brands, from Disney to Procter & Gamble, have advertisements running on sites that push pro-Trump conspiracy theories. The majority of those ads are served by Google.

Google is the most dominant player in programmatic advertising, but it has a spotty record enforcing rules for publishers.

Photo: Alex Tai/Getty Images

Shortly after November's presidential election, a story appeared on the website of far-right personality Charlie Kirk, claiming that 10,000 dead people had returned mail-in ballots in Michigan. But after publishing, a correction appeared at the top of the story, completely debunking the misleading headline, which remains, months later, unchanged.

"We are not aware of a single confirmed case showing that a ballot was actually cast on behalf of a deceased individual," the correction, which quoted Michigan election officials, read.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
People

Google’s productivity guru has some advice for you

Here's how Laura Mae Martin helps Google's top execs work smarter.

Laura Mae Martin, Google's executive productivity adviser, works one-on-one with the company's top brass.

Image: Google

If productivity were a product at Google, then Laura Mae Martin would be its product manager.

She's Google's executive productivity adviser, a job she created following a successful 20% project about managing inboxes that she debuted while working in keyword sales. As the company's top expert on productivity, her remit seems simple enough: Make Googlers more efficient in their day-to-day work lives. But in practice, that means working directly with the top executives of a trillion-dollar company to make some of tech's most sought-after talent better at what they do.

Keep Reading Show less
Kevin McAllister

Kevin McAllister ( @k__mcallister) is an associate editor at Protocol, leading the development of Braintrust. Prior to joining the team, he was a rankings data reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw structured data projects for the Journal's strategy team.

People

Nine tricks from Google’s productivity guru

These productivity tips were voted as some of the best by Google employees. Now they're yours.

Google Workspace, G Suite's successor, has plenty of integrations to take advantage of.

Image: Google

Each Friday, Google's top productivity expert, Laura Mae Martin, sends a note to more than half the company globally describing ways that different departments are using their own tools to be more efficient. Here's a list of the favorites, as upvoted by Googlers themselves.

Read more about how Martin coaches Google's top execs to work smarter.

Keep Reading Show less
Kevin McAllister

Kevin McAllister ( @k__mcallister) is an associate editor at Protocol, leading the development of Braintrust. Prior to joining the team, he was a rankings data reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw structured data projects for the Journal's strategy team.

Latest Stories