As AT&T and Google push broadband adoption, the feds are non-players

Some question U.S. government efforts on digital inclusion, putting pressure on the private sector

AT&T's announcement Monday that it's eyeing a rollout of 1 gigabit fiber-optic service in 21 new cities pits it against Google Fiber, which named 34 cities for possible expansion of a similar fiber optic service back in February.

Both Google and AT&T clearly see the economic incentives of bringing video and other new Web services to a wider audience over 1 Gbps connections.

Both companies also seem to want to use their fiber-optic programs to help bridge the nation's digital divide and to bring free, or nearly-free, broadband service to underserved low-income homes for those who want it.

The question remains whether their private efforts and other programs from an assortment of cable companies like Cox, Comcast, Time Warner and carriers such as Verizon and Sprint are enough to improve the number of homes in the U.S. on broadband without a big infusion of government money.

About 28% of U.S. homes still don't have broadband service, which is defined by federal officials as download speeds of least 4 Mbps.

Many experts believe that most of the 28% of non-broadband homes are in rural areas, where it's hard to run a reliable, secure fiber connection over a long distance. But even the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) hasn't broken out how many of the 28% total are in poorer city neighborhoods or out in rural areas in its recent data. There is, however, a sophisticated interactive national broadband map on the NTIA website that allows a user to check an address to see how connected a particular community is.

Recognizing that there are various reasons why some people don't have broadband, Google Fiber has embarked on a path in the Kansas City area since 2012 that supplements its 1 Gbps service with free service for residents. To receive 5 Mbps download speeds, however, each subscriber must pay $300 up front for each installation; the payment can be spread out in $25 increments over a year.

Google spokeswoman Jenna Wandres called the free service plan "incredibly popular," but wouldn't divulge how many people have signed up for it in Kansas City. In another Google Fiber city -- Provo, Utah -- Google Fiber is charging just $30 for an installation for the free service. The lower cost there is possible because Google acquired an existing network, which lowered the construction fee, she said.

Even though Google and AT&T are for-profit companies, they seem to recognize advantages in working with local governments and nonprofits to provide lower broadband access as they build out the supercharged 1 gigabit services.

"From the beginning, Google Fiber has been about speed and enabling the developer of the next generation of Web applications, but our work to deploy high-speed broadband also means that we have an opportunity to offer an affordable Internet service and be a part of local efforts to close the digital divide," Wandres said.

"We're offering residents in Google Fiber cities an affordable way to get online, and our hope is that this will help make it easier for folks who haven't had access to the Internet before to get hooked up to the Web. But we also know that some people, even if they're offered a free Internet connection, just don't see the Internet as relevant to their lives."

When AT&T announced plans on April 10 for 1 gigbit fiber-optic connections to North Carolina communities, it also said it would include free 3 Mbps connections to up to 3,000 homes in that area within 10 affordable housing complexes.

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