Google made headlines when, in late January, it announced that it was rolling out gigabit Internet to Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham and Nashville. Eighteen cities across these metro areas will join Kansas City, Provo, and Austin in providing Internet speeds to select residents at roughly 75-100 times the speed of traditional broadband offerings. Less than one month later, AT&T, one of the nation’s largest broadband providers, has made public its intention to also offer gigabit speed Internet through its U-verse service, called GigaPower. AT&T’s super fast Internet is already offered in Raleigh-Durham, Winston-Salem, Kansas City, Dallas-Ft. Worth and Austin. The GigaPower expanded territory will include Charlotte, Greensboro, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Miami, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, San Antonio, and San Jose. Both companies are exploring additional cities for potential buildout; both offerings will start at 1 Gbps for $70.00/month.
Since AT&T’s announcement, different media outlets have carried stories proclaiming this latest development as a victory for competition, citing it as an important example of the value of reclassifying Internet service providers as Title II common carriers under the 1934 Telecommunications Act. While it may be true that some consumers may now gain access to cheaper, faster Internet service in the cities where Google and AT&T will compete, more questions than answers are raised by the policy backdrop undergirding these rules.
The forthcoming Open Internet rules expected to be voted on by the Federal Communications Commission next week would reclassify AT&T’s broadband offering as a Title II service, while Google’s offering would still receive treatment as a Title I information service. Specifically, although the competitors are offering the same service and, in some cases, would be sharing the same infrastructure considering that Google intends to build its network using poll attachments and rights of way that are already in use, the FCC’s new definition of “broadband Internet access service” would only apply to the broadband services people buy from cable, phone, and wireless providers, ostensibly leaving Google free and clear of the obligations of common carriage.
So why does that distinction matter as long as the Internet is faster and cheaper?
Google is not now, and would not be under the FCC’s proposed rules, required to offer a fiber connection to everyone who wants it. In fact, communities surrounding places like Charlotte and Nashville have already raised concerns about not being included in the fiber build out plans. Absent common carrier treatment, Google can cherry pick communities in which to build fiber – it may help the company guarantee a profitable bottom line, but it works an end-run around efforts to close the digital divide by providing those most in need with ready, affordable access to service. If AT&T, or other carriers, compete with Google, or similarly situated entities, only in those areas that Google has dictated has great enough demand for ultrafast broadband, we’ll find our communities even further disconnected by a digital divide perpetuated by redlining akin to trends endemic to the U.S. housing market.
It’s a complex and nuanced game — we all want fast, affordable, reliable broadband at affordable rates, but in getting to that goal, we should caution our policymakers against approaches that inadvertently create a disadvantage for the communities they’re trying to assist.