Broadband faces a fork in the road

While AT&T and Google supercharge broadband, the have-nots still lag behind

In 2010, Google kicked off a race to provide gigabit fiber networks to power users around the nation.

Even so, four years later, about 28% of the nation's homes still have no broadband Internet connection at all.

Google Fiber was launched in the Kansas City area in 2012. Last year Google announced similar plans for Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah. Then in February, Google pushed ahead with a list of another 34 cities that could get such high-speed service.

On Thursday, AT&T announced it was in advanced negotiations to bring 1 gigabit fiber-optic connections to North Carolina communities, including businesses and universities. The carrier launched a similar service in Austin, Texas, last December, with plans for other cities, such as Dallas, in the future. With 1 gigabit service, users can download a TV show in three seconds, and 25 songs in one second, according to AT&T.

To their credit, both Google and AT&T recognize the need to match their high-speed broadband rollouts with slower Internet connections in the 3 Mbps to 5 Mbps range to, hopefully, serve neighborhoods that don't have such access. The question remains whether such efforts are enough.

Experts who worked on the National Broadband Plan approved in 2010 recently warned that there is still a great need for connecting unserved homes, libraries and schools with even basic broadband at less than 4 Mbps. Most of these unconnected homes are in poor inner city neighborhoods and rural areas.

About 28% of the nation's homes still have no broadband service, according to John Horrigan, one of the broadband plan's authors and an independent technology policy consultant. At a forum in March on the broadband plan, Horrigan said: "The lesson...is that we have a lot to do with the expansion of non-broadband users."

Six governing bodies must approve AT&T's North Carolina project for the Research Triangle and Piedmont regions, which would bring 1 gigabit Internet speeds to consumers, as well as free high-speed connections to 100 public sites and an all-fiber network to connect 100 commercial buildings, according to a statement.

In addition, AT&T said free but slow 3 Mbps connections would be available to 10 affordable housing complexes with up to 3,000 homes. The governing bodies are part of the North Carolina Next General Network. No timeline was announced.

Google Fiber pricing includes a free "basic" monthly service of up to 5 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads, but there is a $300 construction fee attached. A $70 per month alternative with no construction fee provides 1 Gbps uploads and downloads.

Even with outreach programs, such as those at AT&T and Google, to homes without broadband, some analysts see the possibility of creating a rush to 1 gigabit broadband that overlooks providing more U.S. homes with the slower basic service.

In 2012, Wired reported that Google's efforts to launch Google Fiber in Kansas City, Mo., had left out some poorer neighborhoods because of the way Google required future customers to pre-register in order to get service.

Google has a community outreach program to help connect more neighborhoods that, along with its "basic" service, "may end up alleviating the digital divide," said Doug Brake, telecom policy analyst for the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in Washington.

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