Here’s how AT&T is going to build its gigabit service in Austin

Fiber optic cable

AT&T is set to launch its GigaPower fiber to the home service in Austin, Texas, any day now but other than wondering if and when my neighborhood would get it, I’ve also wanted to understand how AT&T is rolling out the service. I spoke with Eric Small, VP, fiber broadband planning at AT&T on Tuesday to get the scoop.

First, Austin isn’t a pilot market for AT&T’s fiber to the home effort just because Google has picked the area for its own fiber-to-the-home project (although the government concessions for Google should also help Ma Bell). Small said Austin residents consume 15 percent to 20 percent more broadband than the average AT&T U-verse customer making it a good place to test demand for higher speed services. More Austin residents also have subscribed to AT&T’s fiber-to-the-node U-verse service than currently subscribe to the older DSL technology. The city’s residents are a modern, broadband lovin’ people.

Plug and play makes AT&T’s day

Small said that since AT&T’s fiber-to-the-node installation in 2005, in certain parts of the country, in new neighborhoods and in some apartment buildings AT&T has upgraded to fiber to the premise, so the technology involved in the GigaPower service isn’t completely foreign. (Unfortunately for people who live in those neighborhoods, AT&T only offers the standard U-Verse speeds of 24 Mbps or 18 Mbps as opposed to higher speeds associated with fiber to the premise).

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Now, in Austin, AT&T will upgrade its fiber to the node technology with fiber to the premise and eventually offer the gigabit speeds that fiber can handle.

To do this, AT&T is using technology that could be described at “plug and play” to connect homes back to their neighborhood cabinets and terminals. It’s also manufacturing the cables for each neighborhood offsite as opposed to building each fiber strand in the field. Small says these two tweaks will shave some costs from the overbuild as well as let AT&T install the service when customers call, as opposed to requiring a batch roll-out like Google has done in Kansas City.

When a customer buys a fiber connection, they are getting an optical termination box as their home and a strand of fiber back to a cabinet in the neighborhood. One option for fiber deployments connects a customer at the cabinet by melding the glass fibers together– called fusion splicing. But AT&T is going to use a more modular port-based system where the customer fiber strand terminates in a connector that is then plugged into the cabinet.

This is a fairly common set up across the industry with Verizon, Sonic.Net and others choosing to use connectors. The downside is this can cost more in cabling because the lengths are pre-cut and the connectors cost more, but you don’t have to have a well-trained guy with a $5,000 fusion splicer connecting each home.

Austin

The other deployment strategy AT&T will use is pre-made fiber that’s manufactured to its specifications offsite and then shipped to Austin. So what AT&T does is choose a street and measure the distance between poles or terminals and note the number of houses between those two points. It does this for the length of a street and then ships that information to a fiber manufacturer (Corning has this technology for example). Then a few months later, a reel of fiber arrive bearing the name of the street and the technicians string it or bury it.

Getting from 300 Mbps to a gig

Small notes that the connector technology gives AT&T more flexibility in terms of reusing ports if a customer drops service or moves. As for the Austin deployment, AT&T has selected four neighborhoods that will have a mix of ariel and underground fiber so it can test its tech in a variety of environments. However, it won’t start service at a gigabit. While Small didn’t say that the upgrade at the last mile also required an upgrade on AT&T’s core network equipment, it’s clear that there’s an equipment upgrade that needs to happen.

That’s one reason why the service will launch in December delivering 300 Mbps instead of a gigabit. AT&T plans to upgrade ┬áto a gigabit in the coming year at no cost customers.

The logical point for the equipment upgrade is at the cabinet or at the customer home. AT&T’s current residential gateway providers, Pace and Motorola (bought by Arris), aren’t offering gigabit capable gear just yet, although it’s coming soon. The other option explaining the pause before delivering a full gigabit, is that the gear in the cabinet isn’t upgraded to handle the symmetrical gigabit service that AT&T plans to offer.

When asked, AT&T sent the following statement:

The transition from 300 Mbps to 1 Gbps will be easy for the customer, and at no extra cost. We’re starting with 300 Mbps speeds while we complete an equipment program upgrade to enable 1 Gbps speeds in 2014.

As for the cost of all this, Small was mum. But it does look like AT&T is really getting fiber-to-the-premise in Austin, something I wasn’t entirely sure it would ever do.

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