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

For KUT News 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 1 gigabits per second (Gbps) – 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.

As a comparison, Internet speeds of 1 Gbps allow a user to download a full-length film in about 10 seconds, compared to over two minutes with a 50 megabits per second (Mbps), which is generally the top-tier speed offered to consumers by most Internet service providers.

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 one gigabit Internet service, we are proud to be the first to actually launch it for our customers,” said Murphy.

Last year, 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 a month in Kansas City, Kansas.

In another seeming response to Google, AT&T announced in December that it was building its own 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 Gbps 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,” says 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 says.

Hawkins adds 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 says. 

Being much smaller than Google or AT&T, one might think that Grande is unable to compete with the “big guys.” But CEO Murphy is confident that his company can keep up – and says its small size could actually help them.

“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 says. “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.”

Will Grande’s announcement force Time Warner Cable – one of the region’s biggest Internet service providers – to roll out its own fiber network? 

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 a $2.95 per hour fee access the service. And today, Time Warner announced it would begin offering 300 Mbps service to Austin.

It remains to be seen how Time Warner’s acquisition by Comcast – if approved by federal regulators – will affect any new services in the pipeline.

The competition to bring the fastest Internet to Austinites will more than likely continue for the foreseeable future – with each ISP offering bundled packages, lower prices and other incentives.

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