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AT&T said Wednesday that it will consider bringing its GigaPower service that offers speeds of “up to 1 gigabit” to 21 new cities. Before anyone gets too excited, can we take a moment to call out AT&T for using the nation’s legitimate excitement over gigabit networks to sell privacy-invading broadband plans that don’t even make the gigabit grade, while also stripping away generations of broadband policies designed to ensure low-income areas get service? I call it gigawashing.
Much like I might announce a plan to discuss options to cook dinner tonight with my husband — which may or may not result in a home cooked meal — AT&T is announcing that it plans to discuss bringing its gigabit service to 21 municipalities that have that certain set of je ne sais quoi that AT&T is looking for. From the release:
AT&T will work with local leaders in these markets to discuss ways to bring the service to their communities. Similar to previously announced metro area selections in Austin and Dallas and advanced discussions in Raleigh-Durham and Winston-Salem, communities that have suitable network facilities, and show the strongest investment cases based on anticipated demand and the most receptive policies will influence these future selections and coverage maps within selected areas.
As I’ve written before, those “receptive policies” mentioned above and “strongest investment cases” dismantles the idea that network providers must serve all community members and can take away a point of leverage that municipalities have traditionally used to ensure that low-income areas also get infrastructure upgrades. Google is guilty of this as well, but it has done far more to provide service to community centers in low-income areas and to also get local groups and residents out to sign up for fiber, so all areas can benefit.
But wait, there’s even more uncertainty ahead. In Austin, which AT&T is “already servicing with fiber today,” so far AT&T’s GigaPower service is limited to 300 Mbps and is set to get an upgrade to a full gigabit some time this year. Yesterday I was at my brother in-law’s house where he is a GigaPower subscriber, his computer was registering speeds of 70 Mbps down and 50 Mbps up using Ookla on a wired connection. That’s fast, but not 300 Mbps fast and certainly not a gig.
My brother and sister-in-law are not speed freaks like myself, but they were disappointed with the GigaPower product. To me, what was most troubling is that they couldn’t tell me if they had signed up for AT&T’s service plan that offers them a lower price on internet service if the customer lets AT&T use your surfing habits to offer ads. They signed up for a bundle, they said, that was cheaper than their previous service.
As someone watching the industry, this is troubling in the extreme. My family is buying a service that is far from what was advertised, and is unaware (and doesn’t seem to care all that much) if they signed away their privacy in an attempt to buy a service they aren’t actually getting. And now AT&T is touting that it wants to bring this service to even more cities if it gets the kind of government help that I worry will let it (and even Google) cherry pick neighborhoods to serve.
And yes, Google is not blameless here, but given the new type of invasive plans that offer advertising in exchange for a lower price tag, and the fact that AT&T’s efforts to bring a gigabit so far aren’t delivering a gig, Ma Bell should have some explaining to do before these 21 cities get too excited about their hoped-for gigabit service.