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March 26, 2014 — A competition to provide Austinites access to gigabit-level Internet speeds is creating options for many residents who previously had only one. Three companies have plans to provide 1-gigabit-per-second access to customers throughout Austin, while a fourth is making significant speed upgrades. There is not another city in the U.S. with such a competitive high-speed Internet market, said Rondella Hawkins, a telecommunications and regulatory affairs officer assigned by the city to work directly with broadband providers. “While we’ve had multiple providers in Austin, we’ve not really had true competition,” Hawkins said, explaining that little overlap previously existed among service providers. “We are now the envy of many communities.” Google Fiber’s announcement last April that it would develop its fiber network in Austin started a wave of other activity before Google service goes live later this year. San Marcos–based Grande Communications struck first in February by offering gigabit-level speeds in parts of West Austin. AT&T plans to upgrade customers to gigabit speeds starting in mid-2014, while Time Warner Cable will begin boosting its top speeds from 50 megabits per second to 300 mbps starting in June. “We’re really lucky that with Google Fiber the market reacted, and we’ve seen an increase in broadband and Internet speeds,” Hawkins said. “This reaction from existing providers in Austin has been a benefit for the customers.” On a national level, Austin will be the third city to gain Google Fiber services and the first to access AT&T GigaPower—Dallas will be the second. There are 20 to 30 other U.S. cities with 1G access but none with the selection of providers Austin has, said Heather Burnett Gold, president of Fiber-to-the-Home Council, a fiber Internet advocacy group. “What stands out about Austin versus other cities is the fact you’re going to have three providers,” she said. “That’s just bound to be an enormous catalyst for change.” What competition brings Being the little guy has its advantages, said Grande Communications CEO Matt Murphy, who admits that Google’s pending entry into the Austin market was “a bit of a wake-up call” for his Central Texas company. Grande reacted, he said, by implementing plans to become the city’s first gigabit provider Feb. 18. “Compared to the other folks we’re small, but at the same token we’re a good-size company, so we’re in a unique position to be a lot more nimble than the bigger guys,” Murphy said. “We’re putting a stake in the ground and really deciding to be the fastest-speed provider in any of our markets.” Google Fiber started construction on its fiber network late last year, said Jenna Wandres, Google Fiber communications associate. She did not comment on where initial installation efforts are being concentrated, explaining only that Google separates Austin into “fiberhoods” that receive service based on demand. All fiberhoods are eligible to receive service, she said. “Installing fiber at the same time would be so much work that it would be hard to do all at once,” Wandres said. “The reason we do fiberhoods and the gradual rollouts is so we can focus on one area of the city at a time and blitz that area by focusing all of our efforts there.” AT&T plans to double its Austin coverage area, said Dahna Hull, AT&T vice president and general manager–Austin. Similar to Google Fiber, residents are urged to visit AT&T’s website to express interest in receiving 1G service in their neighborhood. While she could not confirm what neighborhoods have the most votes, she said tens of thousands of people have provided feedback so far. “We are reviewing those results and modifying our build based on that interest,” Hull said. Residents uninterested or unable to gain access to gigabit speeds also stand to benefit. Grande is planning to upgrade all its users to 15–110 mbps. TWC is performing a similar upgrade for its customers, with standard speeds jumping from 15mbps to 50 mbps. “We’re confident these speed enhancements will more than meet the needs of our residential customers,” said Melissa Sorola, TWC director of public relations in Texas. AT&T has not altered its standard services, but its high-speed GigaPower option connects users at 300 mbps until an anticipated 1G upgrade in mid-2014. Google Fiber is likely to offer an alternative 5 mbps plan, charging a one-time installation fee of $300. What connectivity means Austinites use 15 to 20 percent more data than average Americans, according to AT&T data from Hull. Her company took note of those Internet consumption habits by making Austin its pilot city for GigaPower services. In addition, AT&T announced plans Feb. 26 to open its first Center for Innovation somewhere in Central Austin by the end of the year. The center will host educational programs, research initiatives and should include a studio for creating content to use on AT&T media platforms. “It’s really something very different as a result of the cool, creative music atmosphere here in Austin,” Hull said. “We want to also partner with community groups to talk about what other issues we want to tackle together. Opportunities for problem-solving are endless.” More immediately, the construction of AT&T and Google Fiber networks—the companies have an agreement to share the same utility poles—could result in many temporary jobs, said Rick Usher, Kansas City, Mo., assistant city manager who helped facilitate Google Fiber’s pilot launch. He said more than 1,000 construction workers were hired in Kansas City during the initial rollout in 2012. Google Fiber officials could not confirm if more or less workers will be necessary in Austin. Austin joins Kansas City and Provo, Utah, as the first cities to receive Google Fiber services. Google announced Feb. 19 that 34 cities in nine metro areas are under consideration to next receive access to fiber Internet. As part of Google Fiber’s rollout, they agree to provide free service to 100 community centers of each city’s choosing. The program proved successful in Kansas City, Usher said. “On the marketing side, that got school principals and library folks going door to door talking about not only the importance of fiber to the home, but if you sign up it’ll benefit this school, this library,” Usher said of the Kansas City launch. Usher said he looks forward to seeing what unlikely partnerships emerge among cities with 1G service. Some cities such as Chattanooga, Tenn., have launched a publicly funded gigabit network. Every Chattanooga residence and business in the city has access to the $313 million, 600-square-mile Internet network, which is responsible for adding more than 1,000 jobs to the city’s economy, said J.Ed Marston, vice president of communications for the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce. “To have a comprehensive community connection like that allows us to be a living laboratory where entrepreneurs and companies can come and test out applications for ultra broadband that cut across demographics,” Marston said. “We have seen the competition result in other carriers bringing other services to Chattanooga that we probably wouldn’t have perceived as possible for a market our size.” By Joe Lanane Community Impact Newspaper © 2005 - 2014 JG Media, Inc. All rights reserved.