AT&T's announcement Monday that it's eyeing a rollout of 1 gigabit fiber-optic service in 21 new cities pits it against Google Fiber, which named 34 cities for possible expansion of a similar fiber optic service back in February.
Both Google and AT&T clearly see the economic incentives of bringing video and other new Web services to a wider audience over 1 Gbps connections.
Both companies also seem to want to use their fiber-optic programs to help bridge the nation's digital divide and to bring free, or nearly-free, broadband service to underserved low-income homes for those who want it.
The question remains whether their private efforts and other programs from an assortment of cable companies like Cox, Comcast, Time Warner and carriers such as Verizon and Sprint are enough to improve the number of homes in the U.S. on broadband without a big infusion of government money.
About 28% of U.S. homes still don't have broadband service, which is defined by federal officials as download speeds of least 4 Mbps.
Many experts believe that most of the 28% of non-broadband homes are in rural areas, where it's hard to run a reliable, secure fiber connection over a long distance. But even the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) hasn't broken out how many of the 28% total are in poorer city neighborhoods or out in rural areas in its recent data. There is, however, a sophisticated interactive national broadband map on the NTIA website that allows a user to check an address to see how connected a particular community is.
Recognizing that there are various reasons why some people don't have broadband, Google Fiber has embarked on a path in the Kansas City area since 2012 that supplements its 1 Gbps service with free service for residents. To receive 5 Mbps download speeds, however, each subscriber must pay $300 up front for each installation; the payment can be spread out in $25 increments over a year.
Google spokeswoman Jenna Wandres called the free service plan "incredibly popular," but wouldn't divulge how many people have signed up for it in Kansas City. In another Google Fiber city -- Provo, Utah -- Google Fiber is charging just $30 for an installation for the free service. The lower cost there is possible because Google acquired an existing network, which lowered the construction fee, she said.
Even though Google and AT&T are for-profit companies, they seem to recognize advantages in working with local governments and nonprofits to provide lower broadband access as they build out the supercharged 1 gigabit services.
"From the beginning, Google Fiber has been about speed and enabling the developer of the next generation of Web applications, but our work to deploy high-speed broadband also means that we have an opportunity to offer an affordable Internet service and be a part of local efforts to close the digital divide," Wandres said.
"We're offering residents in Google Fiber cities an affordable way to get online, and our hope is that this will help make it easier for folks who haven't had access to the Internet before to get hooked up to the Web. But we also know that some people, even if they're offered a free Internet connection, just don't see the Internet as relevant to their lives."
When AT&T announced plans on April 10 for 1 gigbit fiber-optic connections to North Carolina communities, it also said it would include free 3 Mbps connections to up to 3,000 homes in that area within 10 affordable housing complexes.
When asked whether AT&T is willing to extend a similar commitment to free service for thousands of homes in the 21 new cities it has identified to receive GigaPower, an AT&T spokeswoman said in a statement it is "too soon to speculate," adding that "AT&T will share more once the agreements are approved and we get closer to launch.
"AT&T values digital inclusion and economic development," she said. "In North Carolina, working with the cities, we identified some areas where AT&T is well positioned to assist with these important goals in these communities."
John Horrigan, an independent consultant who worked on the National Broadband Plan approved in 2010, said contributions by private Internet providers like Google and AT&T are going to matter in an era when government funding of digital inclusion programs is drying up.
"What we have now is an opportunity for a real, constructive public-private dialog that means some groups don't get left out," Horrigan said. "It's time to restart the debate over whether there's going to be more government funding for broadband adoption. The fiscal environment has made that conversation difficult to start."
Horrigan said that NTIA and the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, a federal initiative within the Department of Commerce, both got funding for broadband expansion in the Recovery Act of 2010, but that money is running out. "They may be out of money, but they aren't out of mission," he said. "There are still broadband adoption gaps. I'm a proponent of public-private partnerships to close the gaps, but there does need to be a public component."
As for whether there are any broadband inclusion champions in Congress, which ultimately has a say in funding, Horrigan said he knew of none. "I do believe the Obama administration cares and in the NTIA there's interest in doing more, but I don't know if they have the stomach for asking for funding at this point."
Heather Burnett Gold, president of the Fiber to the Home Council Americas, said one focus for more funding has been on the Federal Communications Commission and efforts to find money for a rural fiber buildout. In addition to projects by Verizon and other large carriers, Gold estimated there are 800 smaller fiber and related Internet providers who can help carry out rural fiber connections.
In an era when government funding for many different programs is scrutinized in Congress, there may be even more pressure on private providers to pony up dollars for digital inclusion. And at the very least, the focus will be on mayors and town councils to exact more from private providers than in the 1970s and 1980s, when cable franchises were handed out and state legislatures gave more bargaining power to local officials to negotiate with private companies.
"It's hard to say whether it's the business of private providers" to provide free broadband, said Doug Brake, telecom policy analyst for the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in Washington. "This is a hard problem to solve on the local level, partly because it's about actual outreach to people and convincing people why broadband is important and I'm not sure that's the role of these companies."
Brake and other experts have noted that the Pew Research Center found in a survey of 357 Americans last September that 15% of America adults don't use the Internet at all, with about one-third of that group saying the Internet wasn't relevant to them, and another third saying it was frustrating or difficult to use.
The survey is being used to justify why some neighborhoods aren't connected to the Internet, while others believe the Pew survey sample size needs to include more respondents with more details to help explain what's holding some people back, especially when low-cost cable Internet service plans have been available for years.
At Connecting for Good, a nonprofit IT support group in Kansas City, Mo., regular two-hour computer classes in two locations are usually crowded, and up to 90% of the attendees will leave after finishing a class to sign up for a $50 rebuilt computer to use at home. In some Kansas City neighborhoods, as few as 20% of resident have a home Internet connection, and Connecting for Good has tried to address that problem by installing mesh wireless networks to some apartments, then following up by getting residents familiar with basic computer skills.
Many of the people taking classes at Connecting for Good are simply intimidated by computers and need one-on-one help getting started, said Terry Zenon, one of the group's volunteer instructors.
Google Fiber's arrival in the Kansas City area has helped supercharge interest in home broadband, according to Connecting for Good volunteers. Even so, Google has so far resisted connecting its fiber to Wi-Fi routers to serve low-income apartment buildings in the belief that fiber to each home is more secure and reliable, especially where Wi-Fi doesn't work well through concrete walls.
Google says it alone can't solve the digital inclusion problem, and nobody disagrees.
"Many stakeholders, not just Google Fiber, have to work together to close the digital divide in Kansas City and across the U.S. -- to get the remaining 25% [without broadband] online," spokeswoman Wandres said. "This will take work and commitment over the long term and that's what we're doing through our own product, but also by working with cities, schools, community organizations and local businesses."
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 email@example.com.