In 2010, Google kicked off a race to provide gigabit fiber networks to power users around the nation. Even so, four years later, about 28 percent of the nation's homes still have no broadband Internet connection at all.
Google Fiber was launched in the Kansas City area in 2012. Last year Google announced similar plans for Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah. Then in February, Google pushed ahead with a list of another 34 cities that could get such high-speed service.
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On Thursday, AT&T announced it was in advanced negotiations to bring 1 gigabit fiber-optic connections to North Carolina communities, including businesses and universities. The carrier launched a similar service in Austin, Texas, last December, with plans for other cities, such as Dallas, in the future. With 1 gigabit service, users can download a TV show in three seconds, and 25 songs in one second, according to AT&T.
To their credit, both Google and AT&T recognize the need to match their high-speed broadband rollouts with slower Internet connections in the 3 Mbps to 5 Mbps range to, hopefully, serve neighborhoods that don't have such access. The question remains whether such efforts are enough.
Experts who worked on the National Broadband Plan approved in 2010 recently warned that there is still a great need for connecting unserved homes, libraries and schools with even basic broadband at less than 4 Mbps. Most of these unconnected homes are in poor inner city neighborhoods and rural areas.
About 28 percent of the nation's homes still have no broadband service, according to John Horrigan, one of the broadband plan's authors and an independent technology policy consultant. At a forum in March on the broadband plan, Horrigan said: "The lesson...is that we have a lot to do with the expansion of non-broadband users."
Six governing bodies must approve AT&T's North Carolina project for the Research Triangle and Piedmont regions, which would bring 1 gigabit Internet speeds to consumers, as well as free high-speed connections to 100 public sites and an all-fiber network to connect 100 commercial buildings, according to a statement.
In addition, AT&T said free but slow 3 Mbps connections would be available to 10 affordable housing complexes with up to 3,000 homes. The governing bodies are part of the North Carolina Next General Network. No timeline was announced.
Google Fiber pricing includes a free "basic" monthly service of up to 5 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads, but there is a $300 construction fee attached. A $70 per month alternative with no construction fee provides 1 Gbps uploads and downloads.
Even with outreach programs, such as those at AT&T and Google, to homes without broadband, some analysts see the possibility of creating a rush to 1 gigabit broadband that overlooks providing more U.S. homes with the slower basic service.
In 2012, Wired reported that Google's efforts to launch Google Fiber in Kansas City, Mo., had left out some poorer neighborhoods because of the way Google required future customers to pre-register in order to get service.
Google has a community outreach program to help connect more neighborhoods that, along with its "basic" service, "may end up alleviating the digital divide," said Doug Brake, telecom policy analyst for the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in Washington.
But Brake urged broadband providers and state and federal policy makers to be "wary of tumbling headlong into building out a new [fiber] network instead of squeezing out all the performance we can out of existing infrastructure. Google and Gig.U [a coalition of 30 universities] have done a lot of good work identifying ways to work with cities to build new infrastructure with less cost, but if those people who are worse off don't get to participate, that's a problem."
As for AT&T, Brake said he would prefer to see the provider expand its existing service of high-speed DSL in the 45 Mbps range. "I'd rather see AT&T's network footprint go to 45 Mbps than have a handful of cities go to 1 Gbps," he said.
Many businesses, including banks and insurance companies, can indirectly get hurt when broadband isn't widely available, since those companies count on customers to connect to them via the Internet to get their business, Horrigan said.
"Schools, government agencies, and banks expect [their users] to have broadband at home," Horrigan said on Thursday via email, basing his comments on surveys of recent Internet adopters. "That's because these institutions see the value and efficiency in digital delivery of services. That gives these institutions a stake in investing in broadband adoption programs -- not just providers of home broadband service ... It's in the interest of providers and other actors to undertake efforts to promote broadband adoption among the final 25 percent to 30 percent of the country without broadband at home."
Horrigan believes there's room for building out 1 gigabit fiber connections, while also increasing the numbers of broadband-connected homes. "I don't know that it's necessarily an either/or proposition," he said. "Both things are priorities."
Horrigan has warned for a while that money is running out for local broadband expansion programs funded through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) , a federal initiative within the Department of Commerce. "Many BTOP-funded programs are out of money, yet research shows they are not out of mission," he said. "That means it's time for policymakers at the state and federal level to think about additional funding for programs to promote broadband adoption."
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story, "Broadband faces a fork in the road" was originally published by Computerworld.