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Google Fiber vs. AT&T GigaPower: AT&T Likely to Win Gigabit Race, Thanks to Google

First Posted: Dec 10, 2015 04:30 PM EST
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Gigabit broadband is spreading across the country at an accelerating pace, as this week AT&T and Google both announced plans for expansion.

The difference? AT&T is moving into dozens of new areas in the U.S., while Google announced only two new possible candidates. AT&T is now pulling ahead in the national fiber rollout race -- thanks, in part, to Google.

On Monday AT&T announced it was planning to expand its fiber optic broadband service, AT&T GigaPower, to 38 additional metropolitan areas, doubling the number of homes and businesses it reaches by the end of next year.

All told, AT&T GigaPower will eventually be available in a total of 56 metro areas across the country. Currently it's available in 20 locations, after the service launched on Monday in parts of Los Angeles and West Palm Beach.

Google Fiber had its own expansion announcement this week on Tuesday, but on a much smaller scale and at a slower pace. "Today, we're inviting Chicago and Los Angeles to explore bringing Google Fiber to their cities," the announcement stated on Google Fiber's blog.

Google's experimental ISP only expands into areas that have passed a checklist Google has prepared, ensuring the rollout in each location is as cost-effective and free of complications as possible. Nevertheless, the process of installing fiber optic in a new area -- getting local right-of-way agreements, digging up streets, and navigating local regulatory processes -- remains a slow and costly project. Google Fiber is currently only available in a handful of cities across the country.

Adding the possibility of Chicago and Los Angeles, two very high-population American cities, is an aggressive move for Google Fiber, which began building out its network in smaller metros like Austin, Texas and Kansas City.

But it's not as aggressive as AT&T's fiber rollout, which as the Washington Post's Brian Fung noted, has benefitted quite a lot from the groundwork first put in by Google Fiber and its checklist system.

With Google figuring out and drawing attention to a standardized list of necessities required of any local government that wants companies to invest in building a fiber network, AT&T can then coast into locations where it already has a presence -- which, as a decades-old telephone company is practically everywhere -- and quickly build out its own rival network.

AT&T "has both local teams and local rights already in place so that once Google establishes certain rights, AT&T can easily take advantage of those right for its own upgrades," explained former Federal Communications Commission official Blair Levin to WaPo.

Though Google Fiber is being left in the dust behind AT&T's rapid investment and network build-out, some analysts of Google Fiber's recently restructured and renamed parent company, Alphabet, aren't sure that the company is being taken advantage of, exactly.

In the long run, Alphabet's use of the Google name, the checklist, and its investments in opening new cities to fiber networks may be the result of an overarching strategy to "prime the pump" in the U.S. for next-generation broadband Internet in the U.S. Alphabet's strategy may be to invest just enough into building fiber networks through Google Fiber in order to encourage investment from competitors -- more traditional ISPs like AT&T.

It's not an outlandish idea. Alphabet's core businesses (i.e., Google) will only benefit from more people having access to broadband that reaches speeds of 1,000 Mbps, nearly a hundred times faster than the national average speed, currently. Google Fiber, on the other hand, has never been seen as a core make-or-break business for Alphabet. So even when Google Fiber "loses," Alphabet wins. 

AT&T senior policy executive Jim Cicconi even accepts that Google Fiber's "losing" the gigabit race may just be Alphabet at its most strategic.

Speaking on the challenge of building out fiber optic networks in metro areas, Cicconi told WaPo, "We've been butting our heads against that wall for many years with out a lot of success. Because of Google's image and PR skills, they've been able to help bring a lot of those barriers down, and frankly, raise awareness on the part of mayors and others."

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