December 23, 2015 5:25 PMannounced plans to bring its "GigaPower," very high-speed (300Mbps and up), broadband Internet service to 38 new markets in 2016--on top of the 18 markets that AT&T already has up-and-running on the service. A day later, Google Fiber announced on the company's blog that it was exploring expanding its service (available in 3 cities/markets, but under construction in 6 more) to Chicago and Los Angeles. Both announcements were widely reported by the news media, which has favored a "fiber race" narrative ever since both AT&T and Google announced--on the same day--their respective plans to deliver gigabit speed Internet service to Austin, TX.
Thus, analyst Jeff Kagan compares the strides of "the two heavy hitters in ultra-fast, ultra high speed, gigabit Internet services." In the Washington Post, reporter Brian Fung observes that, "AT&T is benefiting tremendously from a chain reaction that Google initially began," though he concludes that, "Google's early lead in the fiber race [is] being eaten away by AT&T's traditional advantage in building networks."
But, while the "fiber race" narrative may add an element of human drama to the otherwise impersonal dynamic of broadband competition, Google's fiber-to-the-premise ("FTTP") network is not the first that AT&T would be compared with in the media. It is, however, the first time the media has favorably compared AT&T to a FTTP-based service provider--and this is the more interesting aspect of the story.
AT&T Starts the "Fiber Race"
As AT&T's service name--"U-Verse® with GigaPowerSM"--suggests, AT&T started building its gigabit speed network long before Google Fiber. In 2004, AT&T observed that, by using a fiber to the node ("FTTN") architecture (which deploys fiber to the last traffic aggregation point prior to distribution to the customer's premise (the "node")), it could quickly provide better-than-DSL speeds (i.e., 6Mbps vs. 3Mbps) to the maximum number of customers, and position AT&T to be able to progressively replace copper with fiber as bandwidth demand moved from the network core to the edge (residential consumers). In 2005, AT&T decided it would call its IP network "U-Verse" and service was launched in 2006. See this 2006 timeline/summary from AT&T.
To illustrate how FTTN is designed to evolve, consider the tremendous surge in demand for wireless data over the last 10 years. To expand capacity, AT&T has created more cell sites, and has steadily added fiber to replace the copper lines that "backhaul" traffic from the cell sites to its backbone network. This means that, in some areas, AT&T can use new fiber in order to "groom" existing U-Verse neighborhoods onto new broadband distribution nodes closer to the customer--thus reducing the copper loop length, and enabling faster DSL transmission speeds.
It's No FiOS
In 2005, Verizon began deploying its FTTP network, FiOS, and--although Verizon's FTTP would take longer to deploy (to reach a similar percentage of customers) the network itself was/is considered the gold standard. Thus, among "experts," in the media, and, by self-described "wonks," its early years, AT&T's U-Verse network was always being compared--unfavorably--to FiOS. U-Verse was the "Jan Brady" of broadband.
An industry newsletter, from 2007, reports that (at the FTTH (Fiber to the Home) Council meeting in late 2006), "AT&T, with its FTTN deployment, showed that it was thinking along the same lines as Verizon . . . [b]ut many in the audience were skeptical about whether AT&T could even deliver HDTV with its fiber-plus-VDSL plant." (emphasis added) A year later, when AT&T increased its broadband Internet speed from 6Mbps to 10Mbps, one tech news site reported, "AT&T Bumps U-Verse Top Speed to 10Mbps, Verizon Chuckles." Months later, at the end of 2008, AT&T almost doubled its top speed --to 18Mbps . . . and was still ridiculed.
As recently as 4 years ago, Susan Crawford--who framed the President's views on telecommunications policy--had already counted AT&T out of the "broadband" market. In an essay in the New York Times, Crawford argued for the regressive application of Title II regulations for broadband services (which the FCC adopted this year) on the basis that cable was a monopoly, unlikely to be challenged by U-Verse, which "cannot provide comparable speeds because, while it uses fiber optic cable to reach neighborhoods, the signal switches to slower copper lines to connect to houses."
Perceptions Are Not Reality
Fortunately, for AT&T, its consumers (the people that pay for the network) disagreed with the critics. In fact, almost a year before Prof. Crawford had discounted U-Verse as a competitor to cable, consumers were telling Consumer Reports that U-Verse was among the best choices (with, of course, FiOS) for bundled broadband, TV, and phone service. Only a month after Crawford's essay, AT&T verified the Consumer Reports survey, reporting that consumer U-Verse revenues increased by an impressive 44% in 2011.
By the end of 2013, despite the early skepticism about "whether AT&T could even deliver HDTV with its fiber-plus-VDSL plant," AT&T's U-Verse passed Verizon's FiOS in numbers of video customers served. AT&T's network and top Internet speeds have consistently improved every year, with its top U-Verse speed increasing to 75Mbps a year ago. Not surprisingly, consumer adoption of U-Verse broadband Internet service has also steadily improved--growing at 30% annually over the last 5 years.
Finally, while the eye of the media has been on FTTP deployments like Google Fiber, it's what has been happening in copper that has almost-certainly put AT&T in position to provide super-fast Internet access more quickly--and in more places--than any other ISP. Over the last 6 years, advances in DSL technology have allowed for faster transmission speeds--very close to those supported by fiber--over legacy facilities.
Having been "counted out"--or never counted "in"--by the media has some advantages. One of these benefits is all the positive publicity AT&T is now getting from publications that may have never expected something they associate with an "innovative" "edge" company--like super-fast broadband--to be done better by a "monopoly" "ISP."
But, it's difficult to overcome perceptions--particularly when these perceptions have been fed by the FCC. The Washington Post article, cited above, looks for an explanation for how AT&T was able to overcome "Google's early lead in the fiber race." Given the perception of Google's early lead, it would be hard for AT&T to convince anyone that it started the race before Google. Instead, the article quotes AT&T's Jim Cicconi as saying, "[w]e're pretty good at this, and we've had a lot of years to get good at it." That's as good an explanation as any.