We've Entered The Age Of 'Fiber To The Press Release'
from the make-believe-bits dept
Google Fiber’s entry into the broadband market has done a lot of great things, especially if you’re one of only a few people who can actually get a 1 Gbps connection for $70 a month. While the actual launch is slow moving and small, Google’s intention was always to create a louder national dialogue about the fairly pathetic state of broadband competition, and the sorts of protectionist laws incumbent ISPs have managed to pass in more than twenty states. That’s not to say Google fiber doesn’t have problems, like Google’s decision to back away from offering an open access model where multiple ISPs are invited in over the top to compete. Google Fiber also isn’t answering the age old question of how you get broadband to lower income neighborhoods.
While Google Fiber has managed to get ISPs to compete in the areas it’s deployed, the project has also managed to spawn a new, misleading but entertaining phenomenon I’ve affectionately labeled “fiber to the press release.” In a fiber to the press release deployment, a carrier (usually one with a history of doing the bare minimum on upgrades) proudly proclaims that they too will soon be offering 1 Gbps broadband. The announcement will contain absolutely no hard specifics on how many people will get the upgrades, but the press will happily parrot the announcement and state that “ISP X” has suddenly joined the ultra-fast broadband race. Why spend money on a significant deployment when you can have the press help you pretend you did?
One case in point is AT&T, which soon after Google Fiber’s launch announcement in Austin, declared that it too would be offering 1 Gbps in Austin under the GigaPower brand. Taking things one step further, AT&T proclaimed that it had always planned to offer 1 Gbps fiber in Austin (most customers remain on 6 Mbps DSL, and a select few can actually get their top speed of 45 Mbps) and that the timing of its announcement was just a coincidence. Hard details of actual deployment stats are impossible to find, outside of the fact that AT&T wants to charge users a $30 premium if you don’t want to be spied on by its deep packet inspection hardware. AT&T this week proudly proclaimed its fiber to the press release efforts would be expanding into Dallas:
“We are redirecting VIP investment to fiber to the home deployment, and in fact we are going to launch the service in Dallas this summer,” stated Stephenson. “…You are going to see other communities as we begin to deploy this technology emerge around the United States,” said the CEO, adding that the company was going to be a “little more aggressive and assertive in deploying that technology around the country.”
When? How many customers? Timelines? Who cares! The fun part is that while AT&T’s CEO is using words like “aggressive” and “assertive” when describing the effort publicly, he’s also on record publicly telling investors that these efforts should have “no material impact” on CAPEX and spending. How is that possible? Because all AT&T is really doing is bumping speeds to select high-end development communities where they’ve already run fiber during construction, but kept those lines capped at DSL speeds. Bump a handful of those users to 1 Gbps, maybe run a few lines to large apartment complexes, hold some PR junkets, and you look like you’re on the cutting edge of broadband deployment and aren’t being out-performed in your home state by — a search engine company.
AT&T’s fiber to the press release, however dismal it is, is actually more substantive than many I’ve seen. Hoping to grab some Google Fiber buzz, Alaska cable operator GCI launched a new brand called “fiber re:D” that, according to their FAQ, might actually result in somebody getting 1 Gbps broadband sometime in 2015. To prove it, they’ve got a supposed deployment map that shows you absolutely nothing. CenturyLink is another company that is happily crowing that it’s offering 1 Gbps service to “select communities” (check out their ads), hoping you’ll ignore the fact that the vast majority of its customers are “lucky” to have 3 Mbps DSL with a 150 GB per month cap — and likely won’t be upgraded any time soon.
Generally these efforts all now follow the same pattern: deploy actual fiber to a handful of businesses and a few high-end developments (if that), dress the effort up in a layer of public relations paint that makes it look like an aggressive, significant deployment (how about some Google-esque videos!), then pretend that you’re not actually lagging horribly on broadband upgrades courtesy of limited competition. Most companies have taken some PR cues from Google as well, usually pretending that communities can “vote” democratically on who gets upgraded next (like Google’s “fiberhood” rallies), even if, unlike Google Fiber, the upgrade locations are usually determined well in advance based on which upscale communities already had fiber buried in the ground.
For minimal effort, fiber to the press release generates a huge amount of national press about how cutting edge your company is, at a tiny fraction of the cost required to actually upgrade your network. Publicly, your company gets to look like it’s a highly flexible, competitive juggernaut, while privately the company gets to remain apathetically and comfortably ensconced in the same, uncompetitive duopoly market it has always enjoyed.