Mar 5, 2015

Google vs. AT&T vs. TWC

[ Note - I've added some notes but haven't edited the original text. ]

I live near Austin, Texas. In fact I live about a mile outside of its ETJ in Round Rock, Texas (named after a round rock that marks where wagons and cattle can ford the Brushy Creek on the Chisholm Trail). My, don't we love descriptive names around here?

Austin is one of those towns that is currently getting Google gigabit fiber Internet service. We expect, and hope, that Round Rock will also get it just like the suburbs of Kansas City got it after Google rolled out their service in Kansas city. We are very excited about that.

Funny thing, AT&T and Time Warner Cable (TWC) are also very excited about it. Scared out of their minds, shitting down both legs, may be a better description of their reaction.

For years AT&T and TWC were the only game in town when it came to so called high speed Internet access in this area. In some parts of Round Rock AT&T is the only game in town, no cable in those neighborhoods at all. Over time both of these monopolistic companies have provided just enough bandwidth to keep people from rioting in the streets and not one bit per second more.

TWC tried to put a usage cap on their service, but found that the people actually did come out in the streets, and TWC's parking lots, and TWC's lobbies, to protest. TWC dropped the idea of a usage cap like a rotting fish.

AT&T put on a usage cap and told people to take it or leave it. AT&T loves usage caps and overage charges.

Neither company is exactly famous for the quality of their customer service. But, there are distinct differences in their attitudes toward their customers. TWC, in my opinion has always been more progressive than AT&T in their customer service. TWC actually does try to provide customer service. In fact, as a TWC customer I have to admit that I actually like TWC's customer service. (At least most of the time.) I have called them with some weird problems and always, eventually, but usually immediately, gotten a solution.

AT&T's attitude toward customer service is that customers should be served medium rare with a nice chianti, and some fava beans. (I worked for what is now called AT&T for nearly five years. so I know that AT&T really does not respect customers.)

TWC has always offered better speeds than AT&T and seems to offer better prices. AT&T's network cannot support the same speed that TWC's network supports. AT&T uses fiber to the neighborhood and copper telephone wire to the house while TWC use coax to the home and coax or fiber to the neighborhood. You can push more bits through coax than through a pair of twisted copper wires.

I once watched a TWC technician run diagnostics on my cable connection. If I read it correctly their network is capable of delivering many gigabits per second to my home.When you think that using DOCISS 3.0 TWC can move over 300 Mbps downstream by bonding 8 channels. You can see that with their ability to deliver hundreds of channels the total bandwidth available on their network is truly huge.

I watched an AT&T technician do the same test and was told they could get 31 megabits to my house. Megabits from AT&T gigabits from TWC. Maybe the difference in networks explains the difference in their reaction to competition.

When Google started rolling out their service TWC calmly, and very quietly, announced they were going to increase the bandwidth of their Internet service. They described the new service, told people when it would be available and did what they said they would do. They doubled my speed to 100 Mbps at no extra charge and offered me 2 to 3 times that speed for a reasonable, in my opinion, price. That made me happy. It gave me a nice warm feeling toward TWC. Of course, I know they could have done the same thing nearly 20 years ago and chose not to. They chose not to for a simple reason. Like all cable companies TWC makes more money from a cable customer than from an Internet customer. But, the better the Internet connection the less the need for cable service. High speed, low profit, Internet service kills high profit cable service.

AT&T's reaction was very different. AT&T could not just increase their customers bandwidth. Their network will not allow it. To match Google's service AT&T will have to spend almost as much as Google is spending to create an equivalent network. They really do not want to do that. So, what do they do instead? AT&T started advertising GigaPower Internet. I really want to call it GigglePower because their whole reaction makes me want to laugh out loud. They advertised it widely and loudly and with expensive TV adds using local big name performers. But, nobody has seen GigaPower... I can't even verify that it really exists.

You see, you can't get GigaPower Internet service. You can't even get any information about it. I have called AT&T to try to find out if or when it will be available in my area. They will not answer that question. I have asked where it is currently available. They will not say. I have asked people all over Austin if they have it, or can get it. No one has it and no one can get it. As far as I can tell it does not exist except as an advertising campaign designed to slow the uptake of Google's service. Giggle Power indeed.... well almost.

I recently found out there are a few homes somewhere in Austin that have the service, but I can't find out where. If you know where you can get it or when it will be available please let me know. I have, like I said, called and asked. I have looked all over their web site. I can find a list of cities they say will get the service, but nothing about actual installations. I found out that there are real customers out there by doing a search for "GigaPower Sucks". Funny how searches of that form always work.

Oh yeah, one more thing to giggle about. AT&T has slapped a 1TeraByte usage cap on their GigaPower service. Let's see 1 gigabit per second translates to about 100 megabytes per second. (When you figure in protocol overhead it takes about 10 bits to transfer 8 bits, 1 byte, of data.) That comes out to 10,000 seconds, 166.7 minutes, or a grand total of 2.8 hours of full speed usage per month. Note that I said full speed usage. You will usually not use the full speed. One terabyte is a lot of Netflix... But, I have one terabyte on DropBox and I could pretty easily blow through that cap.

[ Note - Turns out the above is wrong... You see, even though they call it "GigaPower" they do not offer gigabit/second service. They top speed they offer is 300 megabits/second. A tad less than one third of the speed implied by the name. Almost false advertising.... Exactly the same top speed that TWC offers. Oh yeah, almost forgot, at 300 megabits you can blow through the AT&T cap in about 9 hours of full speed usage. You should multiply or divide by 3 to get closer to the correct numbers. ]

AT&T takes you for $10 for every 50 Gigabytes you go over their cap. Fifty gigabytes is 8.33 minutes of full speed usage. Another way to think of this is that you get 2.8 hours of use per month and are charged $60/hour for every extra hour you use on a service advertised as being only $70 per month. If you use the service as it is advertised you can wind up owing thousands to AT&T at the end of the month. You can see where they plan to make their money on this "service". Of course, I am assuming they will someday deliver the service. Oddly enough, I know that AT&T can move very fast when it wants to. They can deliver this service. The question is, does AT&T want to?

It sure looks like GigaPower Internet is a service you can't get and if you do get it you can't use it the way you think you should be able to. GigaPower is just one more proof that AT&T execs think that the only things people do on the Internet is read sports trivia and look at porn.

AT&T and TWC have to compete or die. Until they faced competition they had no reason to offer a better service. Customers are paying for the old service. Offering a better service will eat into their cable businesses. And, customers had no other choices. As long as neither company improved their services they could both just sit their and collect money for crappy products and service.

Both companies worked to keep competition at bay. Through lobbying the big telecoms made it illegal for municipalities to build their own networks (which many had started doing) and through other legal and financial dealings they kept the small start ups small. At least they have done that in Texas. As long as they can buy politicians and do other things to prevent competition they were never going to have to change. And that was their goal, make as much money as possible selling a service that didn't interfere with their other businesses, namely cable TV. If that kept the US in the Internet dark ages compared to other first world countries, that was fine with them.

The cost of buying a state legislature is chump change for a company like AT&T. What can I say, most Texas politicians are honest in that once they are bought, they stay bought. So, they are a good buy. (Just look at what Ted Cruz, the senator from Comcast, has to say about net neutrality. Even other right wing conservative tea sips think he is nuts.)

AT&T is slowly rolling out the service they advertise. I can't find out where or when it is being installed. I can't find out which neighborhoods will get it. But, they sure do advertise the hell out of it. The only thing I can find out about it is that it has a service cap and incredibly high overage charges.

TWC can, using DOCSIS 3.0 offer a gigabit Internet service. It might be fairly costly to do, but it can be done on their network. I fully expect that they will eventually do that to stay competitive with Google and AT&T. It will be cheaper for TWC to upgrade their network than for either AT&T or Google. That gives them a small advantage.

The next real question to ask is what these companies are doing about their backbone networks. Getting a gigabit in and out of my home means they need terabit backbones to handle the traffic. Connecting millions of homes with gigabit connections to slower backbones would be like having an eight lane highway for a driveway that dumps you out onto a rutted dirt road. AT&T's usage cap goes a long way toward eliminating the problem for them. No matter how fast their service turns out to be the usage cap is only a few times higher than their DSL usage cap so they won't need a faster backbone.

For all my bashing the two telecoms that I know the best I have not ignored bashing Google because I trust them, or even like them. I have done it because I don't have any experience with them as a telecom.

At least Google has stirred things up by coming in as a serious competitor. By competing with all the big telecoms they are forcing them all to provide better services at lower prices. So no matter what, we the people, win. I think that is a good thing.