Feb 20, 2014

In Austin Fiber Wars, the Little Guy Beats Google and AT&T to the Punch

An arms race is afoot to deliver high speed Internet to Austin.

An arms race is afoot to deliver high speed Internet to Austin. Photo by flickr.com/rutlo.

By Andrew Huygen
For KUT and Reporting Texas

Another competitor is joining the fiber arms race in Austin.

San Marcos-based Grande Communications says it will begin rolling out its own super-fast Internet service – offering speeds up to 20 times faster than existing top-tier service – in select Austin neighborhoods starting next week. The service, which Grande is calling Power 1000, would cost $65 per month, with no contract or activity monitoring.

The new connection would offer Internet speeds of 1 gigabit per second, allowing a user to download a full-length film in about 10 seconds. The fastest speed offered by most providers is 50 megabits per second. AT&T and Google Fiber are both rolling out gigabit service in Austin this year.

Grande plans to launch Power 1000 service in West Austin, which accounts for 25 percent of its Austin customer base. This area includes the neighborhoods of Belmont, Bryker Woods, Oakmont Heights, Old Enfield, Pemberton Heights, Rosedale and Tarrytown.

In a press release, Grande President Matt Murphy didn’t shy away from referencing the competition.

“While others are talking about 1 gigabit Internet service, we are proud to be the first to actually launch it for our customers,” Murphy said.

In April, Google announced that it would be bringing its high-speed fiber service to Austin, hoping to have service up and running by mid-2014. While official pricing has yet to be announced, Google’s fiber service is currently priced at $70-per-month in Kansas City, Kansas.

AT&T announced in December that it too was building a fiber network in Austin. Calling its service U-verse with GigaPower, AT&T now offers 300 Mbps speeds to consumers – with the promise of a 1 gigabit speed upgrade in 2014 for the same price.

“There is no question that Austinites are hungry for fast speeds and consumer choice is always a positive,” said Dahna Hull, Austin vice-president and general manager for AT&T. “In fact, sales of U-verse with GigaPower have surpassed our expectations and are the reason we are expanding service to twice as many Austin households in 2014.”

AT&T users can pay $70 per month – but only if they allow the ISP to monitor their Internet activity and send them ads based on that activity. If the user would like to browse the Internet a little more privately, they can opt out of monitoring by spending an additional $29 per month.

GigaPower is currently only available in select parts of Austin, with potential subscribers having the ability to vote for their neighborhoods to receive the service.

City of Austin Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs Officer Rondella Hawkins believes that fiber Internet could have a lasting, beneficial impact on the city.

“We hope the Google Fiber project, among others, will make affordable fiber Internet available to all of our residents and neighborhoods … so all have the information technology capacity to find jobs, have access to online essential services like healthcare, education and lifelong learning activities,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said competition among ISPs means more improvements for the city.

“Increased competition across the city should encourage all providers to enter the market, either in expansion mode or new mode and upgrade their broadband speeds at competitive prices,” Hawkins said.

Grande Communications is much smaller than Google or AT&T. But CEO Murphy is confident that his company can keep up – and says its size could actually help.

“As a mid-sized operator, Grande is in a unique position of being able to provide the most state-of-the-art technologies while being flexible in how we offer these services to our customers,” Murphy said. “Larger national players have significantly more scale; however, our size allows us to proactively adjust to competitive forces in a way that bigger corporations can’t.”

Time Warner Cable – one of the region’s biggest Internet service providers – said this week it would offer Internet service of up to 300 megabits per second, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

A few weeks after Google announced in April that they were bringing their fiber network to Austin, Time Warner said it would immediately launch a “city-wide” WiFi network. The network was free to current subscribers, and those not already subscribed had the option to pay $2.95 per hour to access the service.

Comcast recently made a bid to acquire Time Warner, and the deal – if approved by federal regulators – could affect any new services in the pipeline.

Reporting Texas has updated this story to more accurately compare the speed of gigabit Internet connections and to include information about Time Warner Cable’s plans for high-speed Internet.