AT&T said on Tuesday that its planned gigabit network set for Austin is both real and that the early stages of it will start operating on December 1. Ma Bell today launched a portal where residents can express interest in the service and said it would start offering what it calls its AT&T U-verse with GigaPower service with a symmetrical 300 Mbps option.
By the middle of 2014 AT&T says residents with the GigaPower service will have a symmetrical gigabit connection. No word on the price or whether it will be capped.
This puts Austin in a unique spot among cities — with two companies preparing to lay two gigabit, fiber-to-the-home networks in the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the world. There’s this effort from AT&T, and the planned Google Fiber deployment, which many view as the impetus for AT&T’s original announcement.
How will AT&T get to a gig?
Google said at the time it plans to connect its first customers by mid-2014, which perhaps not coincidentally is when AT&T will have its first customers upgraded to a gigabit at no additional costs to the yet-to-be-determined-price, according to Lori Lee, executive vice president, AT&T Home Solutions. Lee didn’t explain how AT&T would get from today’s U-Verse speeds that top out at 24 Mbps downstream to 300 Mbps on their way to true gigabit connectivity.
AT&T’s current network in Austin is a very-high-bit-rate digital subscriber line (VDSL) network which means it has fiber deployed to nodes in each neighborhood, but uses copper phone lines to make the final hop to homes. I asked Dr. George Ginis, SVP of DSL marketing at ASSIA and the inventor of vectoring, if AT&T’s current lines could be pushed to 300 Mbps or even a gig. He explained that there are technologies that can get a VDSL network to about 200 Mbps using the typical equipment U.S. telcos have deployed.
One technology, called vectored VDSL allows speeds of up to 100 Mbps, while another uses bonding to deliver speeds of up to 200 Mbps on the double-twisted-pair (it has four wires) copper networks in use in many parts of the U.S. There is a technology called G.fast that could deliver gigabit speeds, but that’s not standardized yet. So it sounds like in Austin at least AT&T is going to really deploy fiber to the home for gigabit customers.
A whole lotta unknowns
AT&T’s GigaPower customers have the option of TV, voice and “the possibility of integrated mobile service” with their service as well. Unfortunately Lee wasn’t as forthcoming with other details, such as pricing.
That’s fine, because it’s not like we know how Google plans to price its broadband or its broadband and TV offering (Google in its other cities does not offer a voice service perhaps because if you have broadband you already have access to VoIP without paying Google a fee). It’s not clear if Lee’s voice service will be VoIP-based or still use the copper wiring AT&T already has in the home (for now anyway).
Also unclear is how AT&T plans to roll out the service and where. The AT&T announcement is timed to the launch of a portal where users can sign up. Lee says that customers won’t have to pay a fee to commit to getting the service, as Google Fiber hopefuls in Kansas City did. In what appeared to be a dig at Google, Lee said “You can sign up and show your interest at any time. It’s not a one-time sign up.”
Of course, since that social engineering and format of the competition helped Google create economies of scale that lowered its expenses for digging fiber, it seems AT&T is willing to forgo those advantages. And of course, we still don’t know how or where Google plans its own roll out.
Plus, AT&T’s CEO Randall Stephenson said last week at an investor conference that because the cost of deploying fiber has dropped by so much, he thinks it will deploy faster networks in cities other than Austin. What those costs are is hard to say. Lee didn’t comment. Google has never commented. I’ve heard estimates from $6,424 from the man who invented DSL to as low as $450 from industry observers.
So basically, Austinites now have two web sites where they can enter their information to sign up for proposed gigabit networks. AT&T’s apparently will go live at less than a third of the speed perhaps as a way of gauging demand and helping set price expectations in the market. Since Google’s spokespeople have told me that part of the pricing for Google Fiber factors in the price it pays for broadcast rights as part of the TV package, and AT&T already has those deals, perhaps it’s willing to undercut Google to win in Austin.
Also if it ties subscribers to a contract, those who sign up for the December service, might not be in a position to sign up for Google’s fiber, which might disrupt Google’s costs.
Meanwhile, we have no technical details, no pricing, no indication of where the network will launch and no idea what a gig could even do for us. Yet, I can still find people who are over the moon with excitement.