Superfast fiber internet—promising download speeds of a 1000 megabits per second—is a tantalizing but far-off prospect for many people, and even those who live in major cities often can’t access it. It’s exciting, then, when news comes along that a big internet service provider will expand its fiber access.
To whit: AT&T announced yesterday that it will expand its fiber-to-the-home service in 17 metro areas, adding 50 new cities to the mix. New cities include Tuscaloosa, AL, Escondido, CA, and Bloomington, IN. The fiber packages in San Diego and New Orleans will start at $80 a month, rising to $119 after the first year.
AT&T’s expansion is particularly notable given that Google, one of its main competitors, has been retreating fast on its fiber plans—it’s reassigning workers, for example, and putting expansion plans on hold. Just this week, it emerged that Kansas City residents who had been promised Google Fiber will no longer get the service. The company later told the Kansas City Star that it would be “slowing construction in some areas until we can layer in the new deployment models we’re developing.” (In an added knife-twist, AT&T will expand into an area of Kansas City—the first city to receive Google Fiber service—that Google currently doesn’t serve.)
So why don’t we all have fiber, and why is it treated as such a gift from our corporate gods when new areas finally get access? Above all else, fiber is terribly expensive to deploy. To get those gigabit speeds, providers need to dig trenches to run their own cables to each home, which means getting a lot of permits to dig those trenches. Both Google and AT&T are experimenting with ways to reduce these problems, like wireless fiber, which reduces the cost of bringing fiber directly to people’s homes (the so-called “last mile” problem).
Of course, AT&T has something of an an advantage in all broadband deployment matters, thanks to the advantages of incumbency: notably, it has a head-start in both physical infrastructure (owning utility poles) and political clout. It’s also gone out of its way to make it harder for new providers to compete. In Nashville, for instance, AT&T sued the city over a Google-backed policy to speed up the process for deploying fiber to utility poles by allowing one contractor to make all necessary changes on a pole. Under the previous policy, each company had to send its own engineer to move its own wires, which is part of why Google was only able to deploy to 33 poles out of 88,000 by September last year. (That lawsuit is still ongoing.)
When reached by email, a Google spokesperson declined to comment on AT&T’s new plans. When reporters ask Google about their fiber plans, the company insists that it’s still committed fiber, such as in Louisville, another city it announced it would expand into last year, and is merely changing how it deploys the service.
The main question with AT&T’s expansion plans, at least, is who these new build-outs will serve. This isn’t the first time AT&T has announced a big new expansion and come up short in terms of actually reaching new customers. There was no news in this announcement of whether AT&T would be expanding its fiber service in poor areas of Cleveland, for example, which are desperately underserved. Let’s hope the new service in places like New Orleans, with its staggering income inequality, isn’t as dramatically divided as it is in Cleveland.